C.J. got dressed in one of her business lawyerly suits and finished by styling her hair inside the bathroom at the hotel in Santa Fe. But she wasn't the one trying the case that would play out inside a courtroom across town. She'd be sitting in the witness box while other lawyers interrogated her. One to help her tell her story of what had happened to her last year, the other to rip her story apart and paint her as the worst kind of whore.

But she'd had enough time spent handling criminal law cases including while interning for F Lee Bailey. Sure she'd focused more on corporate law lately

"You almost ready to go…?"

She looked over at Matt who stood waiting in the bedroom. He'd go down with her and sit in the audience during the trial. He'd testified about an hour the day earlier, not long after they'd flown in from Los Angeles to put this chapter of their lives behind them.

Today would be her turn to take the hot seat and she anticipated spending most of the day there until they were finished with her.

She put on the final touches of mascara and then she went out to meet him.

"I'm ready Houston…"

He smiled at her, his brown eyes reassuring her and slid his arm around her waist.

"Let's go then okay?"

She nodded as they left the hotel room to head to the courthouse. After waiting in the witness prep room, she'd be called in by the bailiff who'd lead her to the witness stand where after raising her hand and taking the oath, she'd begin to tell her story.

As she remembered it.


18 months earlier….

Sheriff Butz:

I drove the latest shipment of gals to Piser's ranch and his latest political friends already had started drinking when we arrived. One of the deputy's herded them out of the jail van, about a half dozen girls of all different types dressed in skimpy bikinis. After all, Semour Piser who chaired the state's parole board lived in a fancy estate with a swimming pool and he hosted the parties himself.

Piser studied the women with a critical eye while I stood next to him.

"Party time girls…"

They didn't look too thrilled but they'd act the parts. We'd had trouble with some of the earlier ones going all defiant, resisting the johns and trying to escape. So we'd made examples of them and I promised Piser each time that the next crop of party girls would be better.

This time I knew that he'd be pleased. We had a couple sexy looking blondes including one in Daisy Duke shorts and a nice fluffy redheaded girl. The only one missing was Fran, the most belligerent one of the bunch, a real wildcat. Piser hadn't cared to see her again so she remained back in lockup at the detention center.

But Piser didn't look happy at all. He wanted some high class girl and face it, not too many of them wandered into the remote desert town where we picked them up. Alley cats at best, most of them turned out to be but for the most part, the politicians from the capitol weren't disappointed.

"I'd like to have a party with you Womart…"

That'd be the redhead in the red bikini and Fran's partner in crime. She always gave lip but the men liked her and that kept her alive.

The deputy sneered.

"You couldn't stand the pace."

But she'd already left not without a parting shot.

"Boredom kills…"

The deputy just looked at me but I shook my head. One of the state senators had picked her photo out of a lineup and so there'd be no teaching her a lesson today. They liked their women unmarked like brand new merchandise even though they were some thrift store version of a whore.

The women all in skimpy outfits lined up and posed for the men who'd already made their choices. I smiled and strutted a little for Piser.

"We got us a real good bunch this time."

Piser just looked bored.

"That's what you said the last time."

Womart piped up.

"Oh we took care of the girls who caused trouble."

I interjected eager to erase the frown on Piser's face.

"We made examples out of them Mr. Piser. That will not happen again."

I and Womart had made sure of that, put bullets in the head of the ones who made trouble and buried them in the desert where no one would find them. We had a business to run after all, we handled the messy part of it so Piser could keep his hands clean. He should be grateful but he controlled the show…along with a new partner he had brought into it.

Then damn it if the blond with the Daisy Dukes on, Carrie I think her name was, took off in a sprint towards the gate.

"Get her…"

Damn girls got so excited when Carrie took off and started cheering her escape on as if she weren't winning of the race for her miserable life. That's why we couldn't let the ones who couldn't be controlled live after trying to fight back or escape. After we caught her, I'd have Romart pull the trigger and get rid of the body and the women already knew they'd never see her again.

But Carrie was quick; she'd gotten the jump on my men and made it down the steps to the fence before Womart picked her up kicking and screaming.

I and my other deputy herded the girls toward the pool area.

"Come on girls you know what you're here for now go make the gentlemen happy."

A couple sassed back but they did what they were told. They knew by now what would happen to them if they didn't.

The defiant redhead who they called Babs resisted a bit.

"All right you don't have to push…"

She hadn't been completely trained yet but she'd get there. Damn Carrie for embarrassing me with her stunt in front of Piser. It'd be the last thing she ever did but Piser needed some reassuring.

"Oh don't worry we'll take care of her."

Womart tossed her inside the van and closed the doors before driving off to take Carrie on the last ride of her sorry life.

She had her choice, she'd make it and now she'd pay.


C.J. Parsons:

Houston just worries too dang much about me. Not that I don't like it but when he'd said goodbye to me just two days ago he'd given me a list of instructions that would frustrate a girl scout.

Damn it was hot as I drove my convertible with the top down surrounded by desert in all directions. That's all I saw was endless desert, more cacti of different types and tumbleweed on the road than I can ever remember. But then Houston told me it'd just be 800 miles of desert and he'd been about right but I had to get to Santa Fe to take one deposition and since I'd been working so hard lately, I decided to spend some vacation time by taking a road trip instead of just flying there.

It'd been great to get away for a while and last night I'd spent the night at a hotel in Phoenix, dutifully called Houston to tell him I'd arrived safely before he could call me and then went out to dinner with some old friends from college.

This morning I got up bright and early hoping to make good time but now I wasn't sure where I was heading. Had I taken the right turn 30 miles ago at the exchange? Now I felt confused.

The latest sign that flew by put me in some place called Bannon County but I wouldn't be staying. I had to hit some town where I'd be staying in a hotel later that night and by then I'd be ready to crash after getting something to eat.

The scenery didn't look familiar to me so I pulled up one of the roadmaps to take another work while keeping one eye on the road. It'd been pretty deserted for a while now and I saw some semi truck in the distance coming towards me after it crossed some railroad tracks.

I must have looked at my watch too because I was pressed for time having overslept that morning and then stopping at a roadside café for a nice lunch. I wanted to make it to my next stop while it was still daylight.

I picked up the map again keeping one eye on the truck looking to make sure I was getting closer. I didn't see the station wagon alongside it in my lane until it was too late.

But when I did I swerved sharply to the right as hard as I could and then the car flew in the air over the dirt and when it landed, I was thrown forward and hit my head on the steering wheel.

I don't remember much after that.


Matt Houston:

I hit the suite after a business meeting with Cynthia who owned a company that did business with Houston Enterprises. Now I spent most of my time investigating cases with C.J. and my Uncle Roy but Murray wanted me to handle one small deal for him and that's how I met Cynthia. We'd been going out for a week, finding that mixing business and pleasure suited both of us.

She was really something…vivacious, smart and cut a mean figure in her business suits. I'd wanted to see how she looked more casual so I'd invited her to go sailing this morning in the Santa Monica bay and then afterward, we headed to my place to change.

She came up the staircase, dressed up in a nice orange dress that molded to her figure.

"That was fast."

She walked towards me.

"Quick changes are one of my specialties."

"Remind me to time you next time….Why don't we try this new place for lunch down the street?"

She sat on a stool next to me.

"Oh great I'm famished."

But my mind was on the slip of paper in my hand and the telephone on the wet bar. C.J. had given me the phone numbers of everywhere she'd be staying on this road trip of hers. I punched numbers on the phone to call the hotel in Santa Fe where she should be right now. I just wanted to make sure she made it safely, that's all. Then Cynthia and I would head on out to spend the afternoon together.

"I want to make one phone call…"

She put her chin in her hand. I thought she'd roll her eyes but she didn't…still she'd seen me reach for the phone enough in the past couple of day. But C.J. was my best friend in the whole world since we grew up as kids in Texas and sometimes I felt I needed to look after her. After all, it hadn't been that long ago she'd been shot on one of our cases and came closer to dying than had ever scared me before…she'd gotten well, headed off to Hawaii for a month and came back fully recovered.

Sometimes my friendship with C.J. proved difficult to explain to the other women in my life. This was one of them. But Cynthia had been a good sport about it.

"C.J… Houston she only left for Santa Fe two days ago."

"Well I know that and it's…yeah C.J. Parsons' suite please."

I waited as Cynthia sighed behind me.

"She's a big girl Houston."

"Hadn't checked in…she really should have been there hours ago…well…no…listen I'll call back later thank you."

I put the phone down and went to embrace Cynthia.

"Ah you're right she's a big girl…"

Soon our hands were on each other. I gestured with my head.

"Let's go…"

I held her hand as she led me to the door but not before I grabbed up that slip of paper. I don't know why I did that. Something…no I knew it was nothing. C.J. was having a great time on her road trip and could have stopped somewhere along the way. When I returned I knew there'd be a message from her on my voice mail.


C.J.

I woke up and the car was on fire, smoldering. I lay down on the dirt, aching all over but mostly on my head. As I lifted my head up, I saw this bunny scampering into the brush. But then…my head hurt so much and I wanted to get up but it was so hard…I felt dizzy and disoriented…my mind fuzzy. I watched the car burn, had I driven it? What was it doing there? What was I doing here? Where was here?

Who was I?

God, my head throbbed and my mind, like a deep fog shrouded it. I tried to make sense of it as my mind raced. Nothing looked familiar at all and yet I headed back on the road waving my arms for someone to help me but the few cars just sped on by without stopping. I touched my face and felt a bump there and more dizziness but I kept walking. I had to keep walking but didn't know where to go so I just followed the highway.

Soon it'd be getting dark and before long it did…as I reached the town without a name. I walked inside a bar to do what…maybe use a phone though I didn't know who to call. Inside there was a red headed woman sitting at the bar with the bar tender, a man. They both looked at me.

"Not my style…,"she said.

"Evening sweet thing," the bartender said, "What's your pleasure?"

I had no idea. What did he mean by that and why were they looking at me so strangely?

"Have a little fight with your boyfriend?"

He pulled at his belt and I just stood there still trying to make sense of it all. That just seemed to encourage him to be more…friendly.

"Well now, I think I got a cure for whatever's ailing you…"

The woman walked over to me.

"You hurt?"

What did she mean by that? I had hit my head but the pain came and went. The aches in my body had receded.

"No…"

She rested a hand on my back to guide me toward the bar.

"You look wrecked. You'd better sit down."

I didn't know what to do. She seemed nice but who was she? Did I know her? Why was she helping me? All these questions and then the bartender smirked.

"I got a cot in the back…"

I didn't like the way he said that. I don't think he wanted to help me like the woman. She shot him a glance that meant she didn't like it.

"Why don't you take a hike?"

The bartender put his hands up.

"Just trying to give her a little comfort…"

I didn't need any comfort. I needed to know my name. I needed to know why I was there. Images flickered inside my head…random… horses…buildings…and a man but nothing stayed for long.

The woman sat down at the bar.

"Got a name honey?"

I had no idea. I must have one right but nothing came to me.

"Where you from…?"

I just drew another blank. I seemed to be doing that a lot but then somewhere in the fuzziness an image appeared of a…bunny. I tried to grab hold of it because it's all that appeared.

"There was a… bunny…"

The woman sipped her drink, nodding.

"Bunny…nice name…"

But that didn't sound right to me. Nothing else came to mind to replace it.

"So what's your story…"

Story what story? Oh yeah, my life but I couldn't remember any of it. Just waking up and seeing the burning car and the bunny. Some fleeting images that were scrambled inside my head giving me a headache…none of them made sense.

But the woman waited for an answer so I gave one.

"I'm not sure I have one."

"Oh you got one, maybe a few pages are missing but I know a classy broad when I see one…Now this jacket may be a little beat up but it's good material…and that watch aint from a thrift store either."

I looked down at my jacket and my paints that had dirt on them. I don't remember putting them on and where I'd gotten them. I didn't remember where I'd been that morning or all the days preceding it. I looked at my watch, not recognizing it or where it came from…who gave it to me? Someone did at some point.

The bartender shook his head.

"She looks like she's been on one hell of a bender."

The woman shot him a look that I caught.

"Been on a few myself. You even know where you are."

I had no idea.

"No…"

My head hurt and I winced as I touched it.

"Well I do…and believe me it aint worth knowing…It looks like someone really got you good. Let's get you fixed up."

She led me away to a washroom. I didn't know if someone had hit me and that's why my head hurt. The accident…had I hit my head? Had I been alone in the car?

I washed myself up, being careful of the bruised area on my forehead and the reflection in the mirror could have been anyone. I don't know her…but she's me. Where was she born, what about her parents? What did she do, why was she here? To me, she just looked like another stranger but when her hands moved mine did. When I frowned, the lines appeared on her face. I touched my cheek and so did she.

If the woman thought it was strange, she didn't say anything.

"Jake…he's the bartender," she said, "I don't trust him. Maybe we better get on out of here."

I just furrowed my brows at her. I didn't know her yet she seemed intent on helping me. I felt grateful but deep inside somewhere I felt wariness too.

Be careful who you trust. Don't take everything at face value.

Those lessons had been drilled inside me by someone but who? Was it the man that flickered in front of my face sometimes before vanishing as if he were a mirage?

"I'm Rhonda by the way…"

I just nodded unable to say who I was in response.

"You ready to go?"

I nodded again, suddenly I felt like I wanted to leave too. But as we returned in the bar Jake just stared at us and something in his eyes made me deeply afraid.