Dr. Wang sustains his 200-year-old self by theft. Every 30 to 50 years he steals the Ch’i, the life force, of another person—and Howard Stein is his next victim.
In 1985 Howard Stein is a psychology graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis.
Becoming a psychologist was an entirely rational decision, based upon the frequency of friends and casual acquaintances treating him like a Dear Abby. He has an uncanny ability to know the whole of it, and his advice was quite successful. And, since he is a good student, more than stunning intelligence, he knows the tricks of the good grades trade, the choice was simple.
His plan collapses under the weight of three illnesses: one easily understood; one only understood by an acupuncturist; and the third illness, well, Howard is yet to fully grasp the depth of it.
The only dates in his social calendar are pre-printed. He isn’t so much a square peg but an oval one, almost fitting in but not quite. Oh, he has friends: he tosses together his softball team like a salad, some law students, med students, biology students, history students. His heart, though, lacks the tailoring for romance—preferring to spend nights playing jazz guitar. When Carol moves to town, this first illness appears quickly remedied. But, despite both of them being ovals, their romance is reshaped by Howard's fight for his life. Dinner Tuesday? Can’t, I’ll be in the emergency room wracked with unbearable pain. My white count will be up, so the doctors know I’m sick, but they won’t be able to identify any particular disease.
Howard visits an acupuncturist, Dr. Wang, and learns he is days from dying of acute pancreatitis. The eventual improvement in his health would normally be considered good news, if not for Carol’s own unique perceptions—she sees the swirls of colors, the shapes of words, the contours and molds of feeling, and even angels. And that Dr. Wang is evil incarnate.
The third illness comes with Dr. Wang's descent into Howard and Carol’s life. Dr. Wang mastered Chi, the life force of the soul, and then conquered mortality by stealing it. Every 30-50 years he takes another persons ch'i and is intent upon taking Howard’s. When his initial attempt fails, and this ancient master is not used to failure, he concludes mastery of life requires the simultaneous mastery of death. He must conquer death, not just turn off a body, as with a gun or knife, but rather completely destroy a soul; true death being that the soul simply vanishes is if it never existed.
To conquer his illnesses, indeed to live, Howard must overpower a man who has defeated the strongest forces of nature. The journey for survival takes him out of St. Louis, across the country, and into the depths of his own soul.