Ben Ballantine, an artist who scrapes together a living selling scenic paintings to Fisherman’s Wharf tourists and sketching criminal composites for the SFPD, is approached by a mysterious man who knows his secret. Six years earlier, he was one of four volunteers who took part in an art school project. Acting as human canvas, they let classmate Ronnie Church tattoo a living mural right across their backs. It was called Original Sin, and it was revolutionary.
Now, Church has become the Rembrandt of our times, the college friends have gone their separate ways, and though the mural may be out of sight, it’s anything but out of mind. In fact, it’s the most talked-about, least-seen artwork in history. An almost mythical Mona Lisa. And this stranger wants to put together an art gallery show featuring the mural. Ballantine tells him the critical flaw in his plan: Rachel, one of the art experiment's participants (and Ballantine's former girlfriend), is dead. The chances of anyone ever seeing the whole of "Original Sin" was buried with her. Within days, Ballantine learns the details of a bizarre New York City grave robbery. The empty coffin belonged to Rachel, and her body is missing. Ballantine wonders if this is more of Ronnie Church's edgy and endless publicity machinery, or is someone—maybe that mysterious gallery owner—out to collect the one work of art in the world that can't be bought or sold?
It's only a theory until the Harlem River washes Rachel's skinned body ashore. Now Ballantine comes to believe that the terrible crime is only beginning. One quarter of the mural has already been taken, tanned, hung on a wall. But what good is twenty-five percent of an artwork?
Like the mark of Cain, the tattoos on the survivors' backs are inescapable signals to the world as well as targets for a serial killer who will stop at nothing for the ultimate collectible. And so Ben Ballantine, quite literally trying to save his own skin, begins his relentless descent into the underground to uncover who's behind the monstrous art thefts...