Decapitation is not an everyday occurrence. Certainly not in Coupeville, a rural village in Washington state, on Whidbey Island, some sixty miles north of Seattle. But a head in a cardboard box lands on the doorstep of Peter Sixkiller, town marshal. There’s no mystery as to who it is. Three weeks before, the body to which the head belonged was found under the town dock. It was that of Bruce Ebey, an environmental activist from Los Angeles, whose family had been on the island since the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Ironically, his great, great grand uncle, Isaac Ebey, had been killed in a similar manner in 1857 by a roving band of Haida Indians. Only his head turned up three years later, not three weeks.
So who killed Bruce? Was it the natives in a grim echo of Isaac’s murder? Was it the business interests who hated the preservationists? Or was it some random act by a demented local? The marshal is at a loss and probably out of his depth. He enlists the help of John Stella, ex-cop and forensic psychologist. It turns out Johnny, as he likes to be called, teaches at Windham College in Hamilton New Hampshire, and is in Coupeville (as far away as he can get from New Hampshire) mourning the death of his wife, who took a bullet for him. Initially, Johnny resists the requests of the marshal and the regulars at Carl and Vicki’s coffee shop, but his instincts get the better of him and he plunges in.
There’s no scarcity of suspects. Steve Plunkett is a big developer who wants to plant a mega mall on the south side of town, against the opposition of the preservationists, the marshal and, in fact, the whole town. Al Graham owns the land and stands to make a big profit from the mall. Alan Powers runs a string of churches in the Seattle area that preach the gospel of prosperity and may stand to profit from the mall as well. Even the county sheriff, Jim Radbourne, may be involved. He hates the marshal and would do anything to run him out and be the only lawman on the island. Johnny quickly finds that he really can’t trust anyone. His only help comes from Alice Craig, an aggressive and beautiful TV newswoman, and he’s not sure that even she can be fully trusted.
Soon the suspect pool is reduced by one as Powers is found dead in his church, his body sitting in a chair and his head perched on the pulpit. Johnny becomes a suspect in the death since he was the last to see Powers alive, and the marshal takes him off the case. But after talking to Powers, Johnny is convinced that the killings center on the proposed mall development. Only now he has to figure it out himself.
Relying only on Alice to do the legwork, Johnny unearths several interesting facts. Plunkett is accustomed to overpaying for land he wants and has offered Al Graham three times the value of his land. Al’s son, Gene, was a marshal’s deputy who was fired after a run in with the marshal over his harassment of Amy Rice, another deputy. But now, Amy and the marshal are having an affair, and that probably leads to the third homicide, when Amy’s body—headless—is found in a local park. The marshal collapses and the investigation once again falls to Johnny, now aided by a cooperative sheriff.
Johnny is convinced that Gene Graham is the killer, especially after he finds out that he is an unnamed partner in Plunkett’s scheme. He also realizes that Graham’s partner in the homicides is Bill Pooley, one of the sheriff’s deputies and a cohort form high school days. But Gene has disappeared and his father is stonewalling Johnny and the sheriff as to his whereabouts. To flush Graham out, Johnny uses Alice as bait. It works but it places both Johnny and Alice in danger, facing both Pooley and Graham in a deserted park. Jonny manages to get the two arguing with each other and he and Alice slip away. During the argument, Pooley shoots Graham and then comes after Johnny and Alice. Pooley shoots Johnny in the shoulder but Johnny manages to cut Pooley down with a machete he’d taken form Graha