Matt drove to the courthouse while she just tried to relax before having to go on the witness stand in the criminal trial of Semour Piser. It's not like she had never testified before but this time the story she'd tell arose from when she'd been someone else. A woman with no past who started with a blank slate and it had taken her some time to merge those two lives into one.
"We're going to stop and get some breakfast okay?"
"It'll have to be drive thru because we're running late."
She hadn't eaten anything this morning even though she'd been hungry. After skipping breakfast for a while and making it up at lunch, she'd been glad to enjoy her mainstays of eggs and toast again.
"All right but we'll make up for it at lunch."
"I don't know how much time I'll have left on the stand. It could take all day."
He turned into another street.
"Okay then we'll go out to a steak dinner with all the trimmings."
She smiled at him then.
"Steak will be great…"
They'd been to Santa Fe several times since what had happened. She'd had to testify in the preliminary hearing to push the case to its trial date.
"I'm here to take care of you okay? Anything you want or need…"
She nodded grateful for that and for all the blessings she'd been given in the past two years.
They hit the drive thru and left with some egg and steak burritos and orange juice. She missed her coffee but the juice hit the spot and her meal would get her through until lunch. What lay ahead made her both nervous and relieved…she didn't like reliving one of her most painful experiences but at least with her testimony she'd put it behind her and hopefully help put Piser away for good.
Now all she had to do was get through it…
About 18 months ago…
Most people tell me I'm the best sheriff Bannon County ever elected and that I look the part too. I fit the uniform just right and after just a year in office, I lowered the crime rate by about 50% and people feel safe on the streets. I have my deputies clean up all the riff raff, women soliciting for tricks, people ripping off old ladies and vandalizing store fronts. My backers including those at the capitol say if I continue to this well, I'll get reelected for sure.
I had a busy day and back in my office I was combing my hair so I'd look nice just in case anyone saw me eating at the diner later on. Ever since I broke off with Lorena because she wanted to get too serious, I've been quite the ladies' man about town.
The phone rang and that just irritated me. Didn't everyone know I was going off the clock? I put my comb away and went to pick it up.
Damn if it didn't turn out to be Jake hanging out at his job at the bar. He called me regular if he had anything that might interest me. But right now, all I wanted was a good meal in my stomach and a willing woman in my bed tonight. You'd be amazed at how the uniform and badge drew women like flies.
"Listen, I got some real cupcakes down here. Think you're really going to like them."
That perked my interest because I remembered how Piser had gotten on me about not finding good enough girls for his parties. They'd been pretty enough for alley cats but they had a thing for trying to run away. Making a few of them examples hadn't cured the rest of them yet.
"Uh the place pretty empty…?"
I knew what to do next. I'd done it so many times already.
"Good. I'm on my way."
Because he and I had an arrangement and both made out well with it. Those two cupcakes as he called them were as good as mine.
I had my arms all wrapped up around Cynthia as we made out on my couch at the office. Lunch had turned to an afternoon spent walking on the marina and then led to dinner at a restaurant overlooking the harbor.
Then of course back to my office where we kissed when we weren't looking at each other, both wanting to spend the night together…nothing serious.
"Oooh you're something else you know that?"
One of my smoother lines but I meant it. The woman knew how to treat a guy and I knew if I played my cards right and I'd played them so often before, we'd wind up in the bedroom downstairs soon enough. She looked back at me totally getting into it but then….it hit me again. I had a phone call to make. I'd been making them all afternoon during lunch, while we'd been at the marina and at the restaurant and now back at the office. All had gone unanswered except for a polite voice telling me that no, either C.J. hadn't checked in the hotel yet or since the last time I'd called. As much as I wanted to end this night just right with Cynthia, I couldn't stop thinking…about C.J. Where the hell was she anyway and why hadn't she called?
Cynthia was about to kiss me again when I put my hand up.
"Hold the thought for a minute….I'm going to try Santa Fe one more time."
It was always one more time I'd promised her, when we were walking hand in hand, toasting each other with wine with our steak and now just before we were heading downstairs. But I knew I had to keep Cynthia happy so I told her why as I made my way out of her arms and towards the phone while she watched.
"I mean…I told her to fly but no she wanted to drive hmm….see the scenery. 800 miles of desert…some scenery…"
I'd already dialed the phone and glanced back at Cynthia.
"Wanted to mix business with pleasure…"
She looked miffed putting her chin in one hand.
"Yes C.J. Parsons checked in yet…She does have a reservation doesn't she…and you haven't heard from her…Yeah minute she comes in have her call me….Matt Houston. She's got my number."
Cynthia had gotten off the couch, her romantic mood completely dissipated.
"I got your number too Houston…ciao."
She chucked me on the chin and headed on out of there leaving me knowing I'd get no action tonight. But I didn't get it, all I wanted to do was to make sure my friend had made it safely to her hotel, what was the big deal about that? Why did Cynthia have to freeze me out?
Why did all my girlfriends have a problem with my relationship with C.J.?
I came out of the washroom with Rhonda, looking much better. My head still hurt but not as much. I didn't feel much like hungry but I knew I'd been running on empty all day.
Without knowing who I was, I just felt frozen in place, unsure what to do next. I kept searching and searching inside myself to find something, anything familiar. Anything that made sense since I didn't see it in my surroundings at all…
But when I saw Jake again, the way he looked at Rhonda and me. I knew something had changed.
Rhonda acted as if was normal walking back to the bar while I slowed down my pace, looking around me, sensing that it didn't feel right.
"I know how you must feel hon. I've seen the downside of more two-stop towns than you could imagine. I've had my share of forgotten weeks too."
She put something back in her purse. Jake watched. I didn't know why he watched so intently but it made my neck prickle.
"It'll come back to you."
I wrapped my arms around myself.
"I hope so. I don't know what I'm going to do if it doesn't."
I really didn't because how would I even begin to start knowing how to live without knowing my name or anything else? I couldn't even remember how long I'd been like this and what I'd done to survive. Nothing existed for me except when I woke up next to the burning car.
Rhonda took the practical route as if she'd decided to take care of me. I didn't know why, I just didn't know what else to do.
"Well first thing we got to do is get you something to eat."
I shook my head.
"I'm really not that hungry."
She just looked at me as if I were crazy. Was I crazy?
"You've been walking all day from the looks of it and I doubt you had lunch out there."
Rhonda pointed towards the door.
"I saw a diner down the street."
She grabbed her purse as if she were used to taking charge.
"Well come on…I'm buying."
"I wish there was something I could do to repay you."
She didn't seem worried.
"Plenty of time to do that later hon. I'm looking forward to meeting some of your classy friends…"
So there was a catch but that made me feel better about it. She helped me now and I repay her later, which made sense when little else did. If she were right about me and I had classy friends, then I had something she wanted.
I didn't see any friends or any faces…except one of a man but it was fleeting. I couldn't hold onto him anymore than anything else.
We started heading towards the door but then saw a burly man dressed in a police uniform. He acted friendly but his eyes…something very different. He had another guy in the same uniform with him.
"Well well…good evening…you ladies going somewhere?"
Rhonda just stared at him. I didn't know what to do so I did the same.
"Yeah…dinner. Is there a law against that around here?"
I guessed she had this conversation before in her life. So did the officer.
"Oh no what I got was a call that you two girls were soliciting in this fine establishment."
Now I knew he wasn't here being friendly. I saw that Jake was trying very hard not to look at us. Rhonda looked ticked off as she looked at me then back at him.
"You got to be kidding…"
"I'm not a man who does very much kidding."
He gestured for the other man to do something and that's when I felt afraid. I didn't know what fear was really or didn't remember beyond feeling my neck prickle or from wondering if I'd ever find out my name. But as I saw Rhonda shove the smaller one back, I knew enough to run.
I had to escape, but where to go?
The two men collided and together hit the wall by the main door blocking it. That left the door just off the washroom into an alley. I ran towards it but Jake sprung into action grabbing my arm before I made it to the doorway. I felt terrified when he did that. I screamed and I fought him, pulling away from where he held me but he was strong. He knew how to keep me from escaping. The burly officer walked towards me and I still tried to get away crying out.
What was happening, why were they trying to hurt me? Was there a reason? Had I done something I didn't remember or…
The bigger guy grabbed me from Jake barking at me to come on and I didn't want to but he was much stronger and I saw the other officer dragging in Rhonda who kicked and struggled against him.
"Let go of me," she yelled.
But neither of us could get away. They pulled us towards the door to take us outside and still I fought, making him drag me across the threshold.
They handcuffed us in back, tightly so my hands hurt and then just tingled and dumped us in the van on the seats. We drove for a while and then they stopped, pulling us out to lead us into a building. I stumbled as I walked and they picked me up. Two deputies removed our cuffs while the burly one who they called Sheriff Butz just watched.
He walked us past the showers and a couple of rooms with glass on the doors where women were inside and then he found an empty one. After unlocking the door, he pushed us inside and I just stood pressing my back against the wall trying to be invisible. I didn't understand this crazy world where things could change so fast. Not too long ago, Rhonda and I were talking in a bar and the next…dragged out to be brought here.
But why? Butz and the other one hadn't said anything to us. They just talked about someone named Piser who would be happy to see us. We were the best ones yet whatever that meant. I didn't know if I wanted to find out.
All I knew how to do was to be quiet, to just watch and run if I had to…run faster to get away. But for now, I'd just wait.
Until I had a chance to run.
"Chris you just stay here for the rest of the night in case she calls…what's the latest word from the hotel?"
He sounded more worried as me. I mean he hadn't heard back from C.J. all day and here he was with his bag packed and ready to go off after her. Maybe she got delayed or she met up with some friends and lost track of the time. I didn't think anything bad had happened to her. I mean the lady knew how to take care of herself and had survived jilted stalkers and gunshot wounds for god's sake.
But my boss asked a question and awaited my answer.
"She still hasn't checked in and nobody's heard from her."
He sighed not liking that answer one bit. Yeah I know they're business partners going way back and best friends back even further but don't tell me that's all there is to it. I know that underneath it all they're hot for each other and when they finally realize that, someone in the office will be a few bucks richer after winning the betting pool.
"Something's wrong, I know it and I'm going to find her."
I just looked at him as we walked to the helipad. He really was scared something had happened to her. What was more likely is that he'd run into her at the hotel in Santa Fe. She'd apologize for not phoning in and if either of them has any sense at all, they'd head up to that suite she reserved and make good use of it. Still since he was upset I had to approach him rationally.
"Houston, it's the middle of the night. Don't you think maybe you ought to wait until the morning?"
No interest from him on doing that.
"No…I want you to get me the first flight to Phoenix. That's the last place that we know she was."
I was resigned.
"I'll have a car waiting."
Just like that he was in my copter and on my way to the airport. I didn't want to see him or C.J. again until they had both come to their senses and as long as they did it by the end of the month, I still had a chance to collect.
Until then, I thought I'd order up some pizza. It was going to be a long night.
Matt and C.J. entered the courthouse and went to meet up with the prosecutor outside the trial courtroom. The hallway was crowded with lawyers and other people but appeared orderly.
He held her hand as he had since they left the car.
"I guess I'd better go," she said, "I'll see you inside."
"I'll be sitting up front," he said, "You get lost or upset with what one of them says, you look at me."
She paused and then nodded.
"It's going to be just fine," he said, "It won't undo what happened to you but this is your chance to say it to a jury. I know you can do it."
"I got to do it for the women who can't...like Carrie. I promised."
He hugged her tightly and she smiled in his embrace. She knew she could handle it if she could get past the first couple of minutes, the time when the judge explained the routine to her, the instructions to the jury and the clerk swearing her in to testify.
Once she started telling her story, their story...she knew she'd keep going until it was time to finish it.
"I'll see you later Houston..."
He watched her walk away as proud of her as he'd ever been.