Jocelyn "Joss" Cole, a burned-out public defender from L.A., has opted for a quieter life in the San Juan Islands of Washington state. Joss has no significant clients other than a group of commercial fishermen suffering from a strange and serious illness, a condition doctors cannot diagnose, which Joss believes has an industrial cause. Then into her office comes Dean Belden, a well-heeled client in search of a lawyer to help him set up a business in the islands. Within days Belden is subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury. Before he can testify, and before Joss can discover what happened in the secrecy of the grand jury room, Belden dies in the fiery explosion of his floatplane on Seattle's Lake Union.
Gideon Van Ry is a nuclear fission expert and a scholar in residence at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. One of his duties is to update the Center's database, an extensive catalogue of fissionable materials and weapons of mass destruction. Gideon is troubled by the apparent failure in accounting for two small tactical nuclear deviced missing from a storage facility in the former Soviet Union. The weapons were last seen in packing crates awaiting shipment to an American company, Belden Electonics. Gideon has been unable to locate this firm, and now he is left with only one possible lead, the lawyer who incorporated the company--Jocelyn Cole.