In rural Michigan, a famed athlete undergoes a routine operation. Six weeks later he is dead, victim of a bizarre form of cancer. In Los Angeles, a radio announcer dies of the same cause. Coincidence? Dr. Greg Dostoyov, the athlete's surgeon, and biologist Kate Adams do not think so. Their quest for answers begins in a remote Scottish laboratory. Greg stumbles upon a photograph of stem cells resembling those that caused the athlete's death. The clue launches Greg and Kate into a vortex of danger, imposed by those who would repress the discovery. The ordeal ends in a California hospital, where the mystery unfolds in a surprising and explosive climax.
Here's the opening chapter of The Final Victim:
In the tiny examining room reeking of iodine, Olie Nielsen stared at the cinderblock wall as blank as his eyes.
“Are you daydreaming?” I asked him.
Leaving him alone to his thoughts, I leafed through the office chart then scribbled my preoperative notes—brief and to the point. Engrossed in making sure I had entered only the pertinent findings, I heard Olie mumble a few words.
I twisted around. “What did you say?”
He spoke in a staccato monotone like an android answering machine. “I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
As the words sank into me, I bolted out of the aluminum chair. “Please repeat what you just said.”
His eyes sprang to life. “Getting hard of hearing, Doc? I said I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
“You’re going to be fine. Many people get that feeling before an operation. And they come through okay.”
“Look, I’ve had a dozen surgeries in my hockey career, but I’ve never had this feeling before getting cut up.”
I remembered that during his playing years, the sportscasters often talked about Olie’s sixth sense. They said he knew where the puck would be before it got there, and he knew where to pass it without looking for a receiver. Was that sixth sense speaking to him now?
Olie jumped off the examining table. “You look worried, Doc.”
“Why did you tell me that?”
“Because you’re frowning.”
“No, I mean about you not making it.”
“I got this feeling. Can’t explain it.”
Standing in silence for a moment, I tried to sort things out in my head. An ominous premonition coming from someone like Olie Nielsen had to be taken seriously. What had triggered it?
Just about every sports addict loved Olie, a recent inductee into the ice hockey hall of fame and now the successful head coach at our local college. With his winning grin and friendly eyes, he was the darling of the media. Sportscasters labeled him the Yogi Berra of hockey. Easygoing, great sense of humor, and an all-round decent person, he was a credit to his sport at a time when scandal, greed, and steroids plagued the athletic world.
If he should die during or soon after the surgery, millions of people, especially me, would mourn for him.
All that aside, I hate losing a patient for any reason—terminal cancer included.
With all sorts of alarms going off in my brain, I asked him, “Would you like me to refer you to University Hospital in Ann Arbor?”
He fixed his cobalt eyes on me. “I don’t live in Ann Arbor, and I don’t like being poked about by all those medical students and trainees. Someone once told me the trainees do most of the surgery at university hospitals. Is that true?”
“Depends on the situation, but the professor is always present and directing the operation.”
“I don’t need a director—I need a hands-on surgeon. And they tell me you’ve got a great pair of hands.”
“But what about this feeling of yours?”
“You told me everyone gets it before surgery.”
“I didn’t say everyone.”
“But a lot, right?”
“Then I’m not that different, am I?”
“What’s the matter, Doc? Can’t take the pressure?”
“I can take it if you can.”
Admittedly, the pressure was intense. I had heard reporters were everywhere—in the fast-food places, in the motels, and in the hospital lobby. They asked a lot of questions, mostly about me, Doctor Greg Dostoyov. What was I like? Was I competent? Where did I go to medical school? Was I board-certified in surgery? How come Olie didn’t go to some renowned medical center where major-league physicians and surgeons practice?
I had never operated on a celebrity before. The small town of Ironthorp, Michigan, didn’t attract celebrities. Except Olie Nielsen. Only about twenty miles south of town, Upper Peninsula Technological College—the locals called it Uptech—was where Olie now coached hockey. He lived with his wife and three daughters just outside town on the banks of the same-named river. That was one reason why he had chosen to have his surgery in Ironthorp.
Olie beamed at me. “So we’re on for tomorrow morning, then.”
I wondered if I had just made the best or the worst decision of my career. But I was sure of one thing: in the operating room, I was damn good.
Sitting at the narrow counter with the Formica top, I finished scrawling my notes while Olie dressed. When ready to leave, he said, “I’ll see you in the morning, Doc. Good luck to both of us.”
I clattered the chair back and jumped up. “Luck has nothing to do with it.”
“That’s comforting to know. Will the doctor with the impossible last name be your assistant?”
“Andy Mortczenski. You met him, right?”
We were heading out of the room when he suddenly grabbed my arm. “Is your assistant any good?”
“I’m glad to hear it, because he bothers me.”
I searched his eyes. “Why?”
“I can’t explain it. He makes me nervous. How many surgeries has he assisted you with?”
“I’ve lost count.”
“Is there something unusual about mine?”
“Nothing at all.”
* * *
Early that same evening, I finished making hospital rounds and headed to the locker room. After exchanging my white coat for a blue blazer, I was combing my hair when I heard the door creak open. In the mirror I saw Andy Mortczenski step inside, look around, and slink behind a row of lockers.
I followed him. “What brings you here today, Andy?”
Mortczenski whirled around. Sweat-drenched, he clanged open his locker. “I’m—uh—looking for something.”
I said, “We’re on for seven-thirty tomorrow. You all set?”
“Lots of reporters around.”
“See you at seven-thirty sharp.”
He grunted something, slammed closed his locker door, and secured it with a combination lock. On the way out, he paused at the doorway, spun around to stare at me for a couple of seconds, and left.
Although he was still the best surgical assistant around, lately Mortczenski seemed disturbed. Withdrawn, sometimes even hostile, he was probably upset about his failing general practice, which had dwindled down to no more than a dozen faithfuls. But that was his business.
His strange moods and behavior made him come across as sort of, well, sinister. Olie had sensed it, and now I sensed it.