After the death of J. Burton Caldwell, president of the First National Bank of Contrary, West Virginia, federal bank examiners find three-quarters of a billion dollars missing. A hick bank in a hick town, it stacks up to be one of the biggest failures in the history of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. When the FDIC attempts to recoup investor's losses by auctioning off the banks' assets and the museum's holdings, the attractive museum curator vanishes and suspicious accidents start to befall winning auction bidders.
Failure analyst Owen Allison recently left his lucrative consulting practice in California to help his mother back home in West Virginia in her fight against cancer. His ex-wife and current lover, Judith, is also back on the West Coast, and now that his mother has mostly recovered, he's itching to get back to his life. But before he has a chance to leave his small hometown of Barkley, West Virginia, a local dam breaks, sending a black ribbon of coal sludge cascading miles and miles through the hollows across the region.
The third Owen Allison mystery, following Contrary Blues and Highway Robbery, finds the transportation inspector defending his Aunt Lizzie against a murder charge. With her land threatened by the construction of a shopping mall, Lizzie parks herself at the edge of her property, shotgun in her lap, vowing to do whatever it takes to stop the dump trucks; then, suddenly, a truck driver is dead. Did Aunt Lizzie really shoot him? Owen smells a rat, but Lizzie seems determined to refuse his help.
When road construction by West Virginia's highway department uncovers human remains near the small town of Barkley, everyone involved stops dead in their tracks. Everyone seems to have a theory on the skeleton's identity. But when another dead body is discovered - this one a lot fresher - the simple forensic investigation turns into something much deeper.
Something more than corn mash is brewing in Contrary, West Virginia, and it's up to government auditor Owen Allison to uncover the secrets hidden deep in this Appalachian town.