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It was ten o'clock in the morning on Christmas Eve, when Jack and Liz Sutherland met with Amanda Parker. It was a sunny morning in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. And Amanda looked both terrified and nervous. She was petite, blond, and delicate, and her hands shook almost imperceptibly as she quietly shredded a Kleenex. Jack and Liz had been handling her divorce for the past year, they worked as a team, and had opened their joint family law office eighteen years before, just after they were married.
They liked working together, and had long since developed a comfortable routine. They enjoyed their practice, and were good at it. They complemented each other, although their styles were extremely different. Inadvertently, and more subconsciously than not, Jack and Liz had adopted a kind of good cop/bad cop routine, which worked well for them and for their clients. It was always Jack who took the more aggressive, confrontational role, the lion in the courtroom, fighting for better conditions and bigger settlements, relentlessly backing his opponents into a corner, from which there was no relief for them until they gave him what he wanted for his client. It was Liz who was more thoughtful, gentler, ingenious about the subtleties, holding the clients' hands when needed, and fighting for the rights of their children. And at times the difference in their styles led to fights between them, as it had in Amanda's case. Despite some of the malicious games Amanda's husband had played on her, the threats, the constant verbal and occasional physical abuse, Liz thought what Jack had proposed was too tough on him.
“Are you crazy?” Jack had asked her bluntly before Amanda arrived. “Look at the crap this guy has pulled on her. He has three girlfriends he's supporting now, has cheated on her for ten years, has hidden all his assets from her, doesn't give a damn about his kids, and wants to walk out of the marriage without it costing him a penny. What do you suggest we do? Set up a trust for him, and thank him for his time and trouble?” Jack had his fighting Irish up, and although with her bright red hair and flashing green eyes, Liz seemed to have fiery looks, she was in fact far more moderate than he was. Jack's eyes were dark and ominous as he glared at her, and his hair had been snow white since he was thirty. People who knew them well teased them sometimes and said that they looked like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. But despite their occasionally heated arguments, everyone inside the courtroom and out knew they were crazy about each other. Theirs was a loving, solid marriage, and they had a family that everyone envied, five children whom they adored, four of whom had bright red hair like their mother, and the youngest boy had dark hair, as Jack's once had been.
“I'm not telling you Phillip Parker doesn't deserve to get hammered,” Liz explained patiently. “I'm trying to tell you he'll take it out on her if we're too heavy-handed with him.”
“And I'm telling you he needs that, or he's going to push her around forever. You've got to hit this guy where he'll feel it, starting with his wallet. You can't let him get away with this kind of bullshit, Liz, and you know it.”
“You're pulling the rug out from under him, and paralyzing his business.” What she was saying was sensible, but Jack's hard-line tactics had worked before for many, many of their clients, and he had achieved settlements for them that few other attorneys could have. His reputation was for not only being tough, but brilliant when it came to getting big money for their clients, and he particularly wanted to achieve that for Amanda. Despite several million dollars Phillip Parker had stashed away, and a booming computer business, he had kept Amanda and their three children living at starvation level. And ever since the separation, she had barely been able to get enough out of him to keep them fed and in shoes. It was even more ridiculous once they figured out what he was spending on his girlfriends, and he had just bought himself a brand-new Porsche. Amanda hadn't even been able to buy a skateboard for her son for Christmas.
“Trust me on this one, Liz. The guy's a bully, and he's going to start squealing like a little pig when we put the squeeze on him in court. I know what I'm doing.”
“Jack, he's going to hurt her, if you squeeze him too tight.” This particular case frightened Liz, and had ever since Amanda had told them of the psychological torture she'd lived with for ten years, and two memorable beatings. She had left him after each one, but he had wooed her back with promises, emotional blackmail, threats, and gifts. And the one thing Liz knew for sure was that Amanda was deathly afraid of him, and Liz thought with good reason.
“We'll get a restraining order on him if we have to,” Jack reassured his wife just before Amanda walked into their office, and he was in the process of describing to her what they were going to do in court that morning. Essentially, they were going to freeze all the assets they were aware of, and cripple his business for the time being, until he gave them the additional financial information they wanted. And one thing all three of them agreed on was that Phillip Parker was not going to like it. Amanda looked terrified as she listened to Jack.
“I'm not sure that we should do that,” she said softly, looking to Liz for reassurance. Jack had always scared her a little, and Liz smiled at her encouragingly, even though she wasn't totally convinced that Jack knew what he was doing on this one. As a rule, she had a lot of faith in him, but this time, his heavy-handedness worried her. But no one liked a fight, or a victory, particularly for the underdog, better than Jack Sutherland. And he wanted to win big-time for his client. In his opinion, Amanda deserved it, and Liz didn't disagree with him, only with the way he wanted to accomplish the win for Amanda. Liz felt that, knowing Phillip Parker, it was dangerous to push him too far.
Jack continued to explain his strategy to Amanda for the next half hour, and at eleven that morning they walked into the courtroom for the hearing. Phillip Parker and his attorney were there when they arrived, and he glanced up with a seeming lack of interest at Amanda. But a minute later, when he thought no one was looking, Liz saw a look pass between them which spoke volumes and sent shivers down her spine. Phillip Parker's whole demeanor was designed to remind Amanda who was in control. Just the way he glanced at her was both frightening and demeaning, and then as though to confuse her, he smiled at her warmly. It was all cleverly done, and the clear message he put out to her seemed to vanish in an instant, but not without its desired effect on Amanda. She looked instantly and visibly more nervous, and leaned over to whisper to Liz as they waited in the courtroom for the court to convene.
“He's going to kill me if the judge freezes his business,” Amanda said nervously so no one but Liz could hear her.
“Do you mean that literally?” Liz asked in a clear whisper.
“No ... no ... I don't think ... but he's going to go crazy. He's coming to pick the kids up tomorrow, and I don't know what I'll say to him.”
“You can't talk to him about this,” Liz said firmly. “Can someone else drop the kids off to him?” As Amanda shook her head silently, she looked helpless, and Liz leaned over to say something to her husband. “Go easy,” was all she said to him, and he nodded, as he shuffled through some papers, and then glanced up with a small, terse smile first at Liz, and then Amanda. The smile told them both that he knew what he was doing, he was a warrior ready to ride into battle, and he didn't intend to lose to his opponent. And as usual, he didn't.
After hearing the shenanigans that had been pulled by Phillip Parker and his legal team, the judge agreed to freeze his assets and monitor his companies for the next thirty days until he came up with the information his wife's legal team needed to reach a settlement with him. His lawyer argued vehemently against it, protesting hotly to the judge, but the judge refused to hear it, ordered him to sit down, and minutes later, rapped his gavel and called a recess. And within seconds afterwards, after an ominous look at his soon to be ex-wife, Parker stormed out of the courtroom. Jack was beaming from ear to ear as he watched him, and put his files back in his briefcase with a victorious look at his wife.
“Nice work,” Liz said calmly, but as she glanced at Amanda, she could see that she was panicked. She said not a word to either of them, as she followed her attorneys from the courtroom, and Liz looked at her with compassion. “It's going to be okay, Amanda. Jack's right. This is the only way we could get his attention.” Technically and strategically, Liz knew and believed that, but from a human standpoint, she was worried about their client, and wanted to do everything she could to reassure her. “Can you get someone to be with you when he picks up the kids, so you don't have to face him alone?”
“My sister is coming over with her kids in the morning.”
“He's a bully, Amanda,” Jack said reassuringly. “He's not going to say anything to you as long as there are other people around.”
Historically, that had been true. But this time they had really pushed him. She had never agreed to let them do that before, but she'd been in therapy for months, and was trying to get braver about not letting Phillip abuse her, verbally, physically, or now financially. This was a major step for her, and one she hoped that, once she stopped shaking, she'd be proud of. And as much as Jack scared her at times, she trusted him completely, and had followed everything he told her to the letter, even this time. She herself was surprised that the judge had been so sympathetic to her, and as Jack said as they walked back to their offices again, that alone should prove something to her. The judge wanted to help and protect her, by freezing Phillip's assets and forcing him to give her the information they'd asked for months before.
“I know you're right,” she said with a sigh, smiling at them both. “It just scares me to get tough with him. I know I have to, but he's a demon when he gets angry.”
“So am I,” Jack said with a smile, and his wife laughed as they said good-bye to Amanda and wished her a merry Christmas.
“It'll be a much better Christmas next year,” Liz promised, and hoped to deliver on it. They wanted to get her the kind of settlement that would allow her to live in peace and comfort with her children. The same kind of comfort, or better, that Phillip's girlfriends were living in, in the condos he'd bought them. He'd even bought one of them a ski chalet in Aspen, while his wife barely had enough money to take their children to the movies. Jack hated guys like that, particularly when the kids had to pay a price for their father's irresponsible behavior. “You still have our home number, don't you?” Liz asked, and Amanda nodded, looking as though she were beginning to relax. At least, for now, the worst was over, and she was impressed by the court's decision. “Call if you need us. If for any reason, he shows up tonight, or calls and threatens you, call 911, and then call me,” Liz said, sounding a little overprotective, but it didn't hurt to remind her. Amanda left them gratefully a moment later, and Jack took off his coat and tie and smiled at his wife with pleasure as he unwound.
“I love beating that bastard. He's going to get his when we hit him with the settlement offer, and there isn't going to be a damn thing he can do about it.”
“Except scare her to death,” Liz reminded Jack with a serious expression.
“At least she'll be scared living on a decent income. If nothing else, her kids deserve that. And by the way, don't you think that 911 business you were telling her is a bit excessive? Come on, Liz, the guy's not a lunatic for chrissake, just an asshole.”
“That's my point. He's enough of an asshole to call and threaten her, or show up and try to scare the wits out of her, just enough to make her back down and have us ask the court to cancel the order.”
“There's not a chance of that, my love. I won't let her do it. And you're the one who was scaring her with all that nonsense about 911.”
“I just wanted to remind her that she's not alone and she can get help. She's an abused woman, Jack. She's not some clearheaded, tough woman who isn't going to take any crap from her ex-husband. She's a walking victim, and you know it.”
“And you're a bleeding heart, and I love you,” he said as he took a step closer and wrapped his arms around her. It was nearly one o'clock by then, and they were closing the office between Christmas and New Year's. And with five children at home, there was no doubt in either of their minds that they would be busy. But Liz was better about leaving the office behind her, when they went home, than Jack was. When she was with her children, they were all she could think of, and Jack loved that about her.
“I love you, Jack Sutherland,” she said with a smile as he kissed her. He wasn't usually amorous with her at work, but it was Christmas after all, and they had finished everything they could before the holiday, especially now that Amanda Parker's hearing was behind them.
From the Paperback edition.