Nicki Janssen’s days are numbered, but she refuses to accept her fate lying down. Defying her father and her doctors, she hits the road with a pocketful of cash, a bus ticket—and a romantic fantasy of riding off with her childhood crush . . .
Handsome, dangerous Brad Ward is facing a different kind of sentence. Sent to prison for felony murder, he has escaped and rekindled his relationship with Nicki. But when Nicki’s father joins forces with a deputy sheriff, the search for the runaways ignites a manhunt—a blistering chase that accelerates with every stolen car, every act of violence . . .
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Nick of Time
By JOHN GILSTRAP
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 John Gilstrap, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Nicolette Janssen's hands trembled as she struggled back into her clothes. She was getting out of here. To hell with the consequences. She'd had it with the lies and the false hopes. This time she was leaving for real.
But she had to hurry. They'd be coming for her soon, and she'd need every second of a head start she could get. She prayed for a ten-minute lead, but doubted she had a chance for that.
Seven, then. Whatever.
As she fumbled with the button on her shorts, she tried not to see the deep purple bruises on her arms. Ooh, sorry. We're almost there. You sure have tiny veins. Sure, blame her veins. Forget about the railroad spikes they called needles.
Now there was a favor she'd like to return one day. When they yelled and cussed at her to be careful, she'd be sure to smile and tell them in that soft voice that it was really for their own good. See how they liked it.
Let somebody else be their chemistry set for a while.
With her pants on and fastened, and her T-shirt in place, Nicki slung her purse over her shoulder and moved tentatively to the door, pausing a beat to thumb the TV remote that was part of the call button that was looped around the side rail of her bed. Oprah and the fears of pending Y2K crises disappeared. Nicki opened the door a crack, just to get a peek, and then stepped out into the wide hallway, standing tall and resisting the urge to run. Just make like you belong, she thought. And why not? With all the hours she'd logged, there ought to be a wing named after her. Her flip-flops squeaked on the tile floor as she turned right and started for the bank of elevators.
Jeez, what was she thinking? The elevators opened directly in front of the nurses' station. "Come on, Nicki, think, will you?" she mumbled. If a nurse or, God help her, her dad saw her out here, there'd be serious hell to pay. Patients weren't supposed to be up and around on their own. Hell, they weren't supposed to pee without telling someone. Prisons and hospitals had a lot in common, she imagined.
Oh, shit, there he is! Her dad — the famed prosecutor Carter Janssen — was standing right at the nurses' station, ranting at the phlebotomist who last dredged her arm. How typical of dear old dad: Better to yell at a stranger than to comfort a daughter.
An exit sign to her right showed the way to the stair well. As Nicki pushed the door open, she prayed that there wouldn't be an alarm. There wasn't. Score one for the home team. It would have been a short chase. She smiled at the thought of what it might have looked like: sprint fifty yards, fall down unconscious, wake up, run another fifty yards ...
It turned out that the stairwell was the primary vertical thoroughfare for everyone who wore a lab coat. All of them moved at three times the speed that she could muster, and they were far too busy to notice her.
She had eight flights to go. That meant sixteen half-flights to the bottom, probably more than the total number of stairs she'd navigated in the last three months combined. See, Dad? she thought. I'm not as fragile as you thought.
If she made it, there'd be no turning back. Maybe now, finally, they would all understand that she meant what she said.
* * *
Carter Janssen knew that Priscilla, the phlebotomist, was the wrong target for his rage, but somebody had to answer for this atrocity, and she was the most available hospital employee. Nowhere near her thirtieth birthday, the technician looked close to tears.
"All I do is draw blood," she whined.
"But you're part of the team," Carter growled, leaning on the word he'd heard so often from the transplant crew. "We succeed or fail as a team, don't you remember?"
"You need to speak to the doctor," Priscilla said. She moved to step around him. "I have nothing to do with the decisions that are made."
"I'd love to speak to a doctor," Carter said, making a broad sweeping motion with both arms. "Do you see one here? All I see are people telling me that the doctors are all too busy to speak with me."
"Doctor Burkhammer is in surgery. I already told you that."
"That's not possible," Carter snapped. "He can't possibly be in surgery, because my daughter was next on his dance card, and she got stood up!" He yelled that last phrase, making Priscilla jump, and drawing uncomfortable glances from the nurses behind the glass. One nurse in particular, a broad-shouldered one in the back who carried herself with the posture of a boss, reached for a telephone. Carter had the distinct feeling that she was calling security.
"Can I help you?" a voice asked from behind.
Carter turned to see a chubby redheaded man who must have bought his clothes before going on a diet. He wore woefully out-of-date horn-rimmed glasses with lenses thick enough to start a fire if he looked the wrong way in sunlight. "Who are you?"
"I'm Dr. Cavanaugh," the man said, extending his hand. "We met a few months ago. I'm from the Heart-Lung Consortium."
Carter's jaw dropped. The last time he'd seen Dr. Cavanaugh, the guy had been the size of a boxcar. That he was now only thirty pounds overweight meant that he'd lost over a hundred. "I wouldn't have recognized you."
The doctor beamed and patted his stomach. "I decided to start taking some of my own advice. I'm terribly sorry about Nicolette. I don't mean to sound flippant, but such are the ups and downs of the transplant business."
"The ups and downs?" Carter repeated. The words tasted bitter on his tongue. "That's it? That's all you have to say to me?"
Dr. Cavanaugh gently grasped Carter's elbow with one hand and gestured to the collection of seats in the hallway. "Perhaps we should sit down and discuss this."
"No," Carter said. "I don't want to sit. I'm waiting for Nicki to get dressed, and I don't want her to step out and not see me."
"Well, let's keep our voices down, then."
"Let's keep our voices down? What are we, in fifth grade? What the hell happened?" Carter reached under his suit jacket and pulled a pager from his belt. "We got the word," he said. "The message came through, we came down here just like we were supposed to, we went through all the pre-op bullshit, and then nothing. Nothing. A nurse told us it was just a false alarm, and that it was time for us to go home."
Cavanaugh showed Carter his palms in an effort to soothe the situation. "I understand that you're upset —"
"What the hell is going on?" That time, Carter's voice rolled like artillery fire down the hallway.
Cavanaugh jumped, and seemed conflicted as to whether he should answer. Finally, he said, "They changed their minds."
"The donor's family."
Carter wasn't sure what answer he was expecting, but this wasn't it. "They get a vote?" His tone betrayed his utter disbelief.
Cavanaugh sighed, clearly resigned to the fact that Carter would never understand. "They lost a child to suicide, Mr. Janssen. I know you think you've had a blow of bad news, but please don't ever — not for a moment — think that those poor people owed you anything. They made a decision and then they changed their mind."
The words rattled Carter. "I don't understand," he said. "They'd prefer that their child's organs be buried in the ground?"
"It's a problem we face with patients like Nicki," Cavanaugh explained. The rationality of his tone and his words belied the horror of his message. "There are a number of surgeons and patients alike who look at bilateral heart and lung transplants as the ultimate act of selfishness. A grieving parent has to decide, in the height of their grief, as they are being bombarded with one nightmare after another, whether their loved one's viscera should help only one person, or help many. The vast majority of transplant recipients need only a heart or one lung —"
"And Nicki needs all three." Carter closed his eyes against the pain of the revelation.
"My God." Carter stared, searching for the next thing to say. He nodded toward that cluster of seats. "I think I'll sit down after all."
Dr. Cavanaugh took the seat directly opposite. "I don't know if this is a detail you want or need to know, but the reason Dr. Burkhammer couldn't meet with you and explain this himself is because he had to perform the heart transplant that the family made possible."
The enormity of it all was too much. So, this was how it was meant to be? At the whim of confused parents, one girl is condemned to death so that others might live? Carter had never allowed himself to understand that someone else would have to die to make that happen.
But those were concerns for another parent. Carter had a devastated child of his own to worry about. "Has this happened before?"
"Rarely, but it does happen. And before you ask why we don't make certain before we notify the recipient, the answer is, we try. We get a yes and a signature, and because time is of the essence, we make the phone calls."
"So, they signed an agreement and reneged?" Suddenly, Carter the lawyer felt his feet on more solid ground.
"We're not selling commodities, Mr. Janssen. These are organs. Some might say that they're a part of the donor's soul. If grieving parents dig in their heels, we're not going to force a donation just because they spilled ink on a page. We're not ghouls."
But we had a deal, he didn't say. To give Nicki life and then to take it away seemed so horribly cruel. In Carter Janssen's world, everything was ordered and neat. Promises were met, and if they weren't then that was what courtrooms were for. This was all so ... unfair.
"What can you tell me about the recipient?" Carter asked. The question came partly out of a need to fill the silence, but also from a need to know in his gut that whoever it was, was worth the price of Nicki's life.
"I can't say anything about that," Cavanaugh said. "I'm sure you understand."
"Man, woman, boy, girl? You can't tell me any of that?"
The doctor shook his head. "I know how devastating this news must be to you, and I caution both you and your daughter not to lose hope. Not only is there a chance that another donor might appear, but there are some fairly encouraging mid-term therapies for Nicki's condition — "
"She wants nothing to do with them."
Cavanaugh's head bobbed, but he clearly dismissed the relevance of that. "Of course she doesn't. She's a teenager. They frequently reject what is best for them. But as her father —"
Carter cut him off with a raised hand. "No lectures, okay? Not now. I'll do what I have to do. But it's such an onerous procedure."
Cavanaugh scowled. "Are we talking about the same procedure? We merely insert a pump into her chest —"
"And administer prostacyclin. Yes, I know. But it means hospital time."
"We have to monitor the condition carefully."
"Of course you do. Doctor, you don't have to justify any of this to me. Nor do you have to explain it to Nicki, but I've got to tell you, after watching her mother wither away in here, she's scared to death of hospitals."
"Well, then we have to set her mind at ease."
Carter closed his eyes to stave off the frustration. "That's not possible," he said. When he opened them again, they felt red. "Without the transplants she's got maybe nine months left, and of those only six are likely to be anything close to normal. The way she sees it, every hour she spends in a hospital is an hour she's not spending cramming life into every day."
"But it's necessary," Cavanaugh said.
"Of course it's necessary," Carter snapped. "Everything is so goddamned necessary. But it sucks."CHAPTER 2
"Hi, this is Nicki. I'm either on the phone or I'm ignoring you. Leave a message, please."
"Nicolette, it's Dad. I don't know what's going on, but please give me a call. Like, yesterday."
She was gone. Poof. Without a trace. Carter could feel his face getting hot as his hands started to tremble. The hospital staff was falling all over themselves apologizing, but he was tired of hearing it. "Okay," he said, silencing the three nurses. "There are only so many ways out of here. Let's get security looking for her."
Okay. Absolutely. Brilliant idea. Clearly thrilled to have something productive to do, the nurses scurried off to put the plan into action. And the less face time they had with a lawyer, the better. There wasn't a hospital in the country that didn't look at lawyers as organisms only slightly less terrifying than Ebola.
Carter seethed. Nicki never would have dreamed of pulling a stunt like this if her mother were still alive. Jenny wouldn't have tolerated it. It had been her special gift to communicate with their daughter. In the quiet moments, he still wondered why God made the choices He had. Life would have been so much better for Nicki if He'd chosen Carter for His cancer games and left Jenny alone.
Carter kicked himself for not seeing the escape in the offing. It was exactly what she'd promised to do if he didn't agree to her terms. He just never thought she'd follow through. Her terms were the equivalent to suicide, for God's sake. He'd given her credit for being smarter than that.
He had to find her, and he had to get her therapy started as soon as possible. With the prostacyclin and a minor turn in their luck, she might be able to buy the time she needed to wait out the next donor.
So, where would she have gone? He spent a minute running through her options, but only came up with one: home. How sad was that? Ever since her grim prognosis was announced, Nicki's depression had manifested as an ugly rejection of all her friends and her hobbies, driving her instead to the impersonal interaction of the Internet and its endless chat rooms. God only knew what she talked about.
Carter called the house three times during his drive home, but to no avail. That meant one of two things: either she wasn't there, or she was dodging his calls.
Okay, there was one more possibility, but he refused to consider it. Suicide.
He pressed a little harder on the gas.
I don't care what happens to me anymore, she had told him a dozen times. It's my life and I'm tired of it. Just let nature take its course. Those damnable adolescent platitudes on fatalism drove him up the friggin' wall.
What the hell did a seventeen-year-old know about life or living? For her, life was exclusively about the comforts — junk food, freedom, and the right friends. There was no world outside of suburbia for her. It would be years before she could realize how thoroughly her limited horizon blocked any view of the future. What seemed so bleak to her now might well be the gateway to great things. Momentary discomfort was the price of long-term good health, period. Why couldn't he make her understand that? Why was she so much more impenetrable than a dozen juries?
God, he missed Jenny.
Carter slid the turn onto the parkway, past the landmark diner that told him he was exactly six point seven miles from home.
For some awful reason, his mind had seized on the image of Nicki slitting her wrists. If that was how she chose to do herself in, there'd be no stopping the bleeding. Not with the Coumadin on board.
"Stop it," he said aloud.
Nicki needed a mother, a confidante. He tried to fill those shoes, but every attempt at a father-daughter chat somehow turned into a cross-examination. His was a world of facts and logic, Nicki's was one of emotions and feelings. How was he supposed to deal with that? A couple of decades ago, when he'd signed on for this parenthood gig, he'd never in a million years thought that he might have to go it alone. With a daughter.
He sped past the Alabaster Dam on his right. Four point four miles to go.
It had been twenty months, almost to the day, since Jenny had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, thus beginning the longest, most relentlessly awful period of Carter's life. Two months later, just after Thanksgiving, she was dead. It felt like no time at all, the cancer equivalent of being hit by a truck, and whatever genius had devised the platitudes about grief diminishing with time had no clue what he was talking about.
Back in the happy days, Carter and Jenny used to chat glibly about what each of them would do in the event of the other's death. Jenny made him promise to let her go first, because she said she'd never be able to find another man, and he'd find a new wife in a heartbeat.
In a heartbeat. The irony brought a lump to his throat. There was only one heartbeat that he cared to hear again, and Carter prayed every night that she could somehow return to him. It was silly, he knew, but it was all he had.
He navigated the hairpin curve at Waples Mill. Three point eight miles to go.
In Nicolette's mind, she became an orphan when Jenny died. Those two were different sides of the same brain. They could think each other's thoughts, complete each other's sentences. Now, she found herself facing her own mortality without an ear she was willing to talk to. No wonder she was so depressed.
Excerpted from Nick of Time by JOHN GILSTRAP. Copyright © 2016 John Gilstrap, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ALSO BY JOHN GILSTRAP,
PART ONE - TIME TO RUN,
PART TWO - TIME TO HIDE,
PART THREE - TIME TO STEAL,
PART FOUR - TIME TO DIE,
PART FIVE - TIME TO LIVE,