2.5 44
by Robin Cook

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Deborah Cochrane and Joanna Meissner, close friends and fellow grad students, respond to a campus newspaper ad that promises to solve their financial problems: an exclusive, highly profitable fertility clinic northwest of Boston is willing to pay top dollar to a few attractive, slim, athletic Ivy-league egg donors. The women are pleased to be accepted into the donor… See more details below


Deborah Cochrane and Joanna Meissner, close friends and fellow grad students, respond to a campus newspaper ad that promises to solve their financial problems: an exclusive, highly profitable fertility clinic northwest of Boston is willing to pay top dollar to a few attractive, slim, athletic Ivy-league egg donors. The women are pleased to be accepted into the donor program by the Wingate Infertility Clinic, and the procedures are done quickly, with minimal inconvenience. Both women are impressed by the clinic and its personnel. With her background in biology, Deborah applauds the organization's commitment to research, while Joanna is intrigued by the business aspect; she had no idea treating infertility was such a lucrative endeavor. With the money earned from their donations, Deborah's and Joanna's circumstances change dramatically. After using the lion's share of the proceeds as a down payment on a two-bedroom condominium, the friends splurge on an extended trip to Venice. When they return, Joanna can't resist the urge to look into the fate of their donated eggs. Deborah is quickly drawn in, and curiosity turns into full-blown obsession as the pair is stymied by Wingate's iron veil of secrecy. The women remain undeterred, particularly after uncovering some disturbing irregularities at the clinic. And the truth they ultimately discover far exceeds the very worst they had imagined.

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Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
Technology and greed converge in this medical thriller by a master of the genre. When two female grad students decide to solve their financial problem by becoming egg donors, they find that the fate of their donated eggs is pretty murky, ultimately discovering the horrific aims of the clinic's research and putting their own lives at stake.
Publishers Weekly
The medical thriller has come a long way since Cook and Michael Crichton invented it: recent practitioners like Tess Gerritson have polished it into a powerful dramatic and social engine. Alas, Cook appears to have gotten off at the wrong station or missed the train entirely, judging by his latest effort, a crudely conceived, ineptly written and most damning of all totally unexciting story ripped from old headlines. Things have been going to hell at the Wingate Fertility Clinic, housed in a rambling Victorian mansion near Boston, ever since the gifted Dr. Spencer Wingate decided to take some time off to write a novel and chase women. Not only was he unsuccessful at both activities, but the nasty little replacement he left in charge has been doing some weird stuff including paying young Harvard women $45,000 for their eggs and driving down the profits. Spencer returns at the same time as two of these women, Deborah Cochrane and Joanna Meissner, who have been spending their payment on Boston real estate and a year in Venice. Judging by the burly security guards on hand who conveniently dispose of a donor who dies on the operating table (and her friend, too) in the first chapter, Deborah and Joanna aren't about to be greeted with open arms. They manage to join the clinic staff under assumed names, hoping to find out what became of the eggs they contributed. Add a farm straight from The Island of Dr. Moreau, where the Wingate staff experiment on animals when they're not busy applying unethical electric shock treatments to human zygotes, and the result is a medical and literary mess with no redeeming features. Copyright 2001 CahnersBusiness Information.
Library Journal
Ah, the wonders of modern medicine, which have given us, among other things, the medical thriller. Here, two graduate science students decide to earn a little extra money by donating their eggs to a fertility clinic. But then they discover that something is amiss. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
Bestselling Cook (Vector, 1999, etc.) lets loose another infectious medical thriller, this one a delightfully readable though oddly girlish effort that could well be titled Nancy Drew and the Missing Ovary. Joanna Meissner and Deborah Cochrane, two 24-year-old Harvard grad students working on their Ph.D. theses, decide to sell an egg each to the Windgate fertility clinic on Boston's fancy North Shore, collect their respective $45,000 fees, buy a condo to rent out, and go off to Venice to finish their work via the Internet. Mischievous Deborah studies molecular biology and has all the good lines; solemn economist Joanna plays straight man when not displaying her strong computer skills. Before they leave for Venice, Joanna gives back her engagement ring to Carlton Williams, a Mass. General intern too blinkered by round-the-clock duties to pay her any attention. When the women return to Cambridge 18 months later, dissertations completed and physical appearance of each slightly changed, Joanna has an irresistible urge to know what happened to her egg. Deborah tries to talk sense into her roommate, but she too gets curious when inquiries reveal Windgate as overly crafty about its fertility research, donors, and egg recipients. So our heroines disguise themselves as sexy Georgina (Deborah) and prudent Prudence (Joanna) and take jobs at Windgate to find out where their eggs went. That's about all we can tell you without giving away a twist reserved for the three-quarter mark, aside from the fact that a serial killer gets dragged across one chapter as a red herring, that the story echoes The Boys from Brazil, and that the climax devolves into a long chase scene down halls and tunnels.Administers more of a routine physical than a real shock, but lots of fun anyway, with Deborah a great sidekick. The girls' masterful verbal swordplay is quite enough to keep the pages singing.

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Product Details

Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.41(d)

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Chapter One

OCTOBER 8, 1999

11:15 PM

                                    So let me get this straight," Joanna Meissner said to Carlton Williams. The two friends were sitting in the dark inside Carlton's Jeep Cherokee in a no-parking zone on Craigie Street along side the Craigie Arms apartment building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "You've decided that it would be best for us to wait to be married until after you finish your surgical residency some three or four years from now."

    "I haven't decided anything," Carlton said defensively. "We're having a discussion here."

    Joanna and Carlton had been out to dinner in Harvard Square that Friday evening and had been enjoying themselves until Joanna had brought up the sore subject of their long-term plans. As usual, from that moment on, the tone of the conversation had deteriorated. They had been over this thorny issue many times in the past as a consequence of their engagement. Theirs was a quintessentially long affair; they had known each other since kindergarten and had been dating each other exclusively since the ninth grade.

    "Listen," Carlton said soothingly. "I'm just trying to think of what's best for both of us."

    "Oh, bull!" Joanna blurted. Despite her vow to herself to stay calm, she could feel anger brewing in hergut as if she were a nuclear reactor about to go critical.

    "I'm serious," Carlton said. "Joanna, I'm working my tail off. You know how often I'm on call. You know the hours. Being a resident at the MGH is a hell of a lot more demanding than I'd ever guessed."

    "What difference does that make?" Joanna snapped, unable to keep the irritation she felt from being painfully obvious. She couldn't help feeling betrayed and rejected.

    "It makes a lot of difference," Carlton persisted. "I'm exhausted. I'm no fun to be with. I can't have a normal conversation outside of what's going on in the hospital. It's pathetic. I don't even know what's happening in Boston, much less the world."

    "That kind of comment might have some validity if we were dating casually. But the fact of the matter is we've been seeing each other for eleven years. And up until I broached this delicate issue of setting a date tonight, you were enjoying yourself, and you were perfectly fun to be with."

    "I certainly love seeing you ..." Carlton said.

    "That's reassuring," Joanna interjected sarcastically. "What I find particularly ironic about this situation is that you're the one who asked me to marry you, not vice versa. The trouble is, that was seven years ago. I'd say that suggests your ardor has significantly cooled."

    "It hasn't," Carlton protested. "I do want to marry you."

    "I'm sorry, but you're not convincing. Not after all this time. First you wanted to graduate from college. That was fine. No problem. I thought that was appropriate. Then you thought you should just get through the first two years of medical school. Even that was okay with me since I could get most of my Ph.D. coursework out of the way. But then you thought it best to put things off until you got yourself all the way through medical school. Are you detecting a pattern here or is it just me? Then the issue became getting the first year of residency behind you. Stupid me even accepted that, but now it's the whole residency business. What about the fellowship deal you talked about last month? And then after that you might even think it best to wait while you set up your practice."

    "I'm trying to be rational about this," Carlton said. "It's a difficult decision, and it behooves us to weigh the pros and cons ..."

    Joanna was no longer listening. Instead her emerald-green eyes wandered away from the face of her fiancé who, she recognized, wasn't even looking at her as he spoke. In fact, he'd avoided looking at her throughout this conversation; as far as she could tell, he'd only guiltily met her glare during her monologue. With unseeing eyes she stared straight ahead into the middle distance. All at once it was as if she had been slapped across the face by an invisible hand. Carlton's suggestion of yet another delay in setting a marriage date had spawned an epiphany, and she found herself laughing, not out of humor but disbelief.

    Carlton halted in midsentence while enumerating the pros and the cons of getting married sooner rather than later.

    "What are you laughing about?" he asked. He raised his eyes from watching himself fumble with the ignition keys and gazed at Joanna in the car's dim interior. Her face was silhouetted against the dark side window by a distant streetlamp whose light fingered its way through the windshield. Her sleek and delicate profile was limned by her lustrous flaxen hair, which appeared to glow in the half light. Diamond-like flashes glistened from her starkly white teeth just visible through her slightly parted, full lips. To Carlton, she was the most beautiful woman in the world even when she was badgering him.

    Ignoring Carlton's question, Joanna continued her soft, mirthless laugh as the clarity of her revelation sharpened. Precipitously, she'd come to acknowledge the validity of what her roommate Deborah Cochrane and her other female friends had been hawking all along, namely that marriage in and of itself should not be her life's goal. They'd been right after all: she'd been programmed by the totality of her suburban Houston upbringing. Joanna couldn't believe she'd been so stupid for so long and so resistant to question a value system she'd so blindly accepted. Thankfully, while treading water waiting for Carlton, she'd been smart enough to lay the foundation of a rewarding career. She was only a thesis away from a Ph.D. from Harvard in economics and she had extensive computer skills.

    "What are you laughing about?" Carlton persisted. "Come on! Talk to me!"

    "I'm laughing at me," Joanna said finally. She turned to look at her fiancé. He appeared perplexed, with his brows tightly knit.

    "I don't understand," Carlton said.

    "That's curious," Joanna said. "I see everything rather clearly."

    She glanced down at the engagement ring on her left hand. The diamond solitaire sucked in the weak available light and threw it back at Joanna with surprising intensity. The stone had been Carlton's grandmother's, and Joanna had been thrilled with it, mostly because of its sentimental value. But now it seemed like a vulgar neon reminder of her own gullibility.

    A sudden sense of claustrophobia gripped Joanna. Without any warning she unlatched the door, slid out, and stood up on the curb.

    "Joanna!" Carlton called. He leaned across the car's center console and peered up into Joanna's face. Her expression was one of fierce resolve. Her usually soft lips were set in grim determination.

    Carlton started to ask Joanna what was the matter, although he knew all too well. Before he could even get the sentence out, the car door slammed in his face. Pushing himself back upright, he groped for the passenger-side window button. When the window opened, Joanna leaned in. Her expression hadn't changed.

    "Don't insult me by asking what's the matter," she said.

    "You're not being very adult about this," Carlton stated firmly.

    "Thank you for your unbiased assessment," Joanna retorted. "I also want to thank you for making everything so clear for me. It certainly makes it easier to make up my mind."

    "Make up your mind about what?" Carlton asked. The newly found firmness of his voice vanished. In its place was a definite quaver. He had a premonition about what was coming, and it was accompanied by a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

    "About my future," Joanna said. "Here!" She extended her clenched fist with the obvious intention of giving something to Carlton.

    Carlton reached out hesitantly with a cupped palm. He felt something cold drop into his hand. Glancing down, he found himself staring at his grandmother's diamond.

    "What's this all about?" Carlton stammered.

    "I think it's pretty clear," Joanna said. "Consider yourself free to finish your residency and whatever else your little heart desires. I certainly don't want to think of myself as a drag."

    "You're not serious?" Carlton questioned. Caught completely off guard by this sudden turn of events, he was befuddled.

    "Oh, but I am," Joanna said. "Consider our engagement officially over. Good night, Carlton."

    Turning on her heels Joanna walked back along Craigie Street toward Concord Avenue and the entrance to the Craigie Arms. Her apartment was on the third floor.

    After a brief struggle with the door release Carlton leaped from his Cherokee and ran after Joanna, who'd already reached the corner. A few deep red maple leaves, which had fallen from the tree that very day, wafted in his wake. He caught up to his former fiancée as she was about to enter her apartment building. He was out of breath. He was clutching the engagement ring in his fist.

    "All right," Carlton managed. "You've made your point. Here, take the ring back." He extended his hand.

    Joanna shook her head. Her grim determination had disappeared. In its place was a tenuous smile. "I didn't give the ring back as a mere gesture or machination. Nor am I actually angry. You obviously don't want to get married now, and all at once, I don't either. Let's give it a rest. We're still friends."

    "But I love you," Carlton blurted.

    "I'm flattered," Joanna said. "And I suppose I still love you, but things have been dragging on for too long. Let's go our separate ways, at least for now.

    "But ..."

    "Good night, Carlton," Joanna said. She pushed herself up onto her tiptoes and gave Carlton's cheek a brush with her lips. A moment later she was in the elevator. She hadn't looked back.

    Putting her key in her apartment door she noticed she was trembling. Despite her airy dismissal of Carlton, she felt her emotions rumbling just below the surface.

    "Wow!" her roommate Deborah Cochrane exclaimed. She checked the task bar on her computer to see the time. "Rather early for a Friday night. Wussup?" Deborah was dressed in oversized Harvard-emblazoned sweats. In comparison with the soft, porcelain femininity of her roommate she was mildly tomboyish with short dark hair, Mediterranean olive complexion, and an athletic build. Her facial features contributed by being stronger and more rounded than Joanna's yet still unerringly female. All in all the roommates complimented each other and emphasized each other's natural attractiveness.

    Joanna didn't respond as she hung up her coat in the hall closet. Deborah watched her closely as she came into their sparsely furnished living room and collapsed on the couch. She tucked her feet under herself and only then met Deborah's inquisitive eyes.

    "Don't tell me you guys had a fight," Deborah said.

    "Not a fight per se," Joanna said. "Just a parting of ways."

    Deborah's jaw dropped. For the six years she'd known Joanna, from freshman orientation onward, Carlton had been a fixture in Joanna's life. As far as she was concerned there'd not been the slightest hint of discord within the relationship. "What happened?" she asked with astonishment.

    "I suddenly saw the light," Joanna said. There was a slight trill to her voice that Deborah noticed instantly. "My engagement is off, and, more importantly, I'm not going to count on getting married, period. If it happens, fine, but if it doesn't, that's okay too."

    "My word!" Deborah said, unable to keep the glee from her voice. "This doesn't sound like the `butter cream frosting, silky bridesmaids' dresses' girl that I've come to love. Why the change of heart?" Deborah considered Joanna's march toward marriage almost religious in its unswerving intensity.

    "Carlton wanted to postpone the wedding until after his residency," Joanna said. In short order, she recounted the last fifteen minutes of her date with Carlton. Deborah listened with rapt attention.

    "Are you all right?" Deborah asked when Joanna fell silent. She leaned forward to peer more directly into Joanna's eyes.

    "Better than I would have guessed," Joanna admitted. "I feel a little shaky, I suppose, but all things considered, I'm doing okay."

    "Then this calls for a celebration," Deborah exclaimed. She stood up and bounced into the kitchen. "I've been saving that bottle of champagne cluttering up the fridge for months," she called over her shoulder. "This is the time to open it."

    "I suppose," Joanna managed. She didn't feel much like celebrating but resisting Deborah's enthusiasm would have taken too much effort.

    "All right!" Deborah exclaimed as she returned with the champagne in one hand and two flutes in the other. She knelt at the coffee table and attacked the bottle. The cork came away with a resounding pop and caromed off the ceiling. Deborah laughed but noticed Joanna didn't.

    "Are you sure you're okay?" Deborah asked.

    "I have to say, it's a big adjustment."

    "That's an understatement," Deborah averred. "Knowing you as well as I do, it's the equivalent of Saint Paul falling on the way to Damascus. You've been programmed by the Houston social scene toward marriage since you were nothing but a twinkle in your mother's eye."

    Joanna laughed despite herself.

    Deborah poured the champagne too quickly. Both glasses filled, mostly with fizz, and spilled out on the table. Undeterred, Deborah snatched the flutes and handed one to Joanna. Then she made Joanna clink glasses with her.

    "Welcome to the twenty-first century social scene," Deborah said.

    Both women lifted their stem ware and tried to drink. They coughed on the foam and laughed. Not wanting to lose the moment, Deborah quickly took both glasses into the kitchen, rinsed them, and returned. This time she poured more carefully by letting the champagne run down the side of the glass. When they drank it was mostly liquid.

    "Not the greatest bubbly," Deborah admitted. "But it's not surprising. David gave it to me way back when. Unfortunately he was a cheapskate from the word go." Deborah had broken off a four-month relationship with her most recent boyfriend, David Curtis, the week before. In sharp contrast to Joanna's, her longest relationship had been less than two years and that was way back in high school. In many ways the two women couldn't have been more different. Instead of the affluent southern suburban social scene complete with debutante balls funded by oil money which Joanna had enjoyed, Deborah grew up in Manhattan with a bohemian single parent who was immersed in academia. Deborah had never known her father, since it was her imminent birth that had ended her parents' relationship. Her mother hadn't married until relatively late in life, after Deborah had left for college.

    "I've not been much of a champagne fan anyway," Joanna said. "I actually wouldn't even know if it were good stuff or not." She twirled the glass in her fingers, momentarily mesmerized by the effervescence.

    "What happened to your ring?" Deborah asked, noticing for the first time that the jewelry was gone.

    "I gave it back," Joanna said casually.

    Deborah shook her head. She was amazed. Joanna had loved the diamond and everything it stood for. She'd rarely taken it from her finger.

    "I'm serious about this," Joanna said.

    "I'm getting that impression," Deborah said. She was momentarily speechless.

    The phone shattered the short silence. Deborah stood up to get it.

    "It's probably Carlton, but I don't want to talk with him," Joanna said.

    Over at the desk Deborah checked the caller ID screen. "You're right, it's Carlton."

    "Let the answering machine get it," Joanna said.

    Deborah returned to the coffee table and plopped herself back down. The two women eyed each other as the phone continued its insistent ring. After the fourth ring the answering machine picked up. There was silence while the outgoing message played. Then Carlton's anxious voice along with a bit of static filled the ascetically decorated room.

    "You're right, Joanna! Waiting until I finish my residency is a stupid idea."

    "I never said it was a stupid idea," Joanna interjected in a forced whisper as if the caller could hear.

    "And you know what?" Carlton continued. "Why don't we go ahead and plan for this June. As I recall, you always said you wanted a June wedding. Well, June's fine by me. Anyway, give me a call as soon as you get this message, and we can talk about it. Okay?"

    The answering machine made a few more mechanical sounds before the little red light on the front of the console began to blink.

    "That shows you how much he knows," Joanna said. "There's no way my mother could put together a proper Houston wedding in eight months."

    "He sounds a little desperate," Deborah said. "If you want to call him back and want some privacy, I can make myself scarce."

    "I don't want to talk with him," Joanna said quickly. "Not now."

    Deborah cocked her head to the side and studied her friend's face. She wanted to be supportive but for the moment was confused how best to play that role.

    "This isn't an argument he and I are having," Joanna explained. "Nor is it some kind of lover's game. I'm not trying to be manipulative, and frankly, I'd feel uncomfortable if we did get married now."

    "This is a total switch."

    "Exactly," Joanna said. "Here he is trying to move the date up and I'd be arguing to postpone. I need some time and space."

    "I understand completely," Deborah said. "And you know what? I think you're being smart not to let this situation turn into a petulant debate."

    "The problem is I do love him," Joanna said with a wry smile. "If there was any debate, I might lose."

    Deborah laughed. "I agree. You're such a new convert to a more modern, sensible attitude about marriage, that you're vulnerable to a relapse. You definitely need time and space. And you know what? I think I have the answer."

    "The answer to what?" Joanna asked.

    "Let me show you something," Deborah said. She climbed to her feet and picked up the latest issue of the Harvard Crimson lying on her desk. It was folded lengthwise in the classified section. She handed the paper to Joanna.

    Joanna scanned the page and read the circled ad. She looked up at Deborah questioningly. "Is this ad from the Wingate Clinic what you wanted me to see?"

    "It is indeed," Deborah said enthusiastically.

    "This is an advertisement for egg donors," Joanna said.

    "Precisely," Deborah said.

    "How is this the answer?" Joanna asked.

    Deborah came around the coffee table and sat down next to Joanna. With her index finger she pointed to the offered compensation. "The money is the answer," she said. "Forty-five thousand dollars a pop!"

    "This ad was in an issue of the Crimson last spring and caused a buzz," Joanna said. "Then it never reappeared. Do you think it's legit or some kind of college prank?"

    "I think it's legit," Deborah said. "Wingate is an infertility clinic in Bookford, Massachusetts, out beyond Concord. That's what I learned form their website."

   "Why are they willing to pay so much money?" Joanna asked.

    "The website says they have some wealthy clients who are willing to pay for what they consider the best. Apparently these clients want Harvard coeds. It must be something like that sperm bank in California where the donors are all Nobel laureates. It's lunacy from a genetic point of view, but who are we to question."

    "We're certainly not Nobel laureates," Joanna said. "Technically, we're not even Harvard coeds. What makes you think they'd be interested in you and me?"

    "Why wouldn't they be?" Deborah asked. "I think being grad students qualifies us as Harvard coeds. I can't imagine it's just undergraduates that they're looking for. In fact, the website specifies they're interested in women twenty-five and younger. We just make it under the wire."

    "But it also says we have to be emotionally stable, attractive, not overweight, and athletic. Aren't we stretching reality a bit here?"

    "Hey, I think we're perfect."

    "Athletic?" Joanna questioned with a smile. "Maybe you, but not me. And emotionally stable. That's pushing the envelope, especially in my current state."

    "Well, we can give it a go," Deborah said. "Maybe you're not the most athletically inclined female on campus, but we'll tell them we'll only consider donating as a pair. They have to take both of us. All or nothing."

    "Are you truly serious about this?" Joanna asked. She eyed her roommate who could be a tease on occasion.

    "I wasn't at first," Deborah admitted. "But then I got to thinking about it earlier in the evening. I mean, the money is enticing. Can you imagine: forty-five grand apiece! That kind of money could give us some freedom for the first time in our lives even while we write our theses. And now that you have so recently opted out of the economic security of the marital goal, the idea should be even more seductive from your perspective. You need some equity besides your education to maintain your resolve and, frankly, to begin planning for the life of a single individual. This kind of money could be the start."

    Joanna tossed the school newspaper onto the coffee table. "Sometimes I can't tell when you are pulling my leg."

    "Hey, I'm not joking. You said you need time and space. This kind of money could provide it and more. Here's the deal. We both go out to this Wingate Clinic, give them a couple of eggs, and collect ninety K. Of that we take about fifty K and buy a two-bedroom condo in Boston or Cambridge, which we rent out to pay the mortgage."

    "Why would we buy a condo to rent it?" Joanna asked.

    "Let me finish," Deborah said.

    "But wouldn't it be better to just wisely invest the fifty K? Remember: I'm the economist and you're the biologist."

    "You might be getting a Ph.D. in economics, but you're a babe in the woods in relation to being a single female in the twenty-first century. So shut up and listen. We buy the condo to begin establishing some real roots. In the previous generation females looked to marriage for that, but now we have to do it for ourselves. An apartment would be a nice start as well as a good investment."

    "My word!" Joanna exclaimed. "You're way ahead of me."

    "You bet your sweet ass," Deborah said. "And there's more. Here's the best part: We take the other forty K and go to Venice to write our Ph.D. theses."

    "Venice!" Joanna cried. "You're crazy, girl!"


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