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Charlene entered the law offices of Phelps, Dugan & Dodge innocent of the trouble the day would bring. She smiled at the young receptionist and nodded as she passed cubicles where clerks and junior associates labored. She stopped in the break room to grab her customary morning cup of coffee and a bagel. Then, as she proceeded toward her office, she heard the muffled roar of her first clients. There was no mistaking the hostile tones of Mr. and Mrs. Samuelson, two of the most objectionable people Charlene had had the displeasure of knowing. She had been selected by family court to arbitrate the Samuelsons' divorce settlement. This was to be their third meeting. The first two had been complete and dismal failures.
Charlene loved her legal specialty. There were very few people who could make the traumas of divorce and custody bearable, and Charlene prided herself in taking families who walked into her office wounded and terrified, and sending them out as people who could cope, people with options.
The arguing achieved fever pitch as she neared her office. Briefcase under her arm, bagel in one hand and coffee in the other, she closed in on the noise. Her assistant and close friend, Pam London, was standing behind her desk, arms crossed and toe tapping impatiently as she glared at the conference-room doors. A disgusted frown twisted her otherwise handsome features.
Charlene was a little confused. "What's going on?" she asked. The Samuelsons were not supposed to be in the same room until the arbitrator arrived, for obvious reasons. Plus, they weren't due for another hour.
"They both had an idea they could get to you first, before the other arrived," Pam explained. "I put Mrs. Samuelson in the conference room and asked Mr. Samuelson to have a seat in the foyer waiting room. But they found each other out and have been in there fighting ever since. I've tried to separate them, to no avail." She smiled evilly. "Let's bolt the door from the outside and let them kill each other."
Charlene handed her briefcase to Pam. "Was he threatening?"
"Someone would have to take him seriously to be threatened. He's just a pip-squeak. An obnoxious little horse's ass. And she's no better."
"Hmm. If anyone was threatening, we could call the police. Well, call building security to begin with, but give me three minutes before you send anyone in."
Charlene and the other senior partner, Brad Phelps, had the two expansive offices in the back, separated by their large conference room, while Mike Dodge was on another floor of the building. Charlene and Brad had private bathrooms with showers and two doors apiece; one to outer offices and their respective executive assistants and the other to the conference room. Charlene placed her coffee and bagel on her desk and retrieved something from the top drawer. She stood in the frame of the conference door to watch. And listen.
The Samuelsons faced each other, fists clenched at their sides, their faces red to their scalps. If only they knew how ridiculous they looked. Mr. Samuelson, the shorter of the two, appeared to shout into his wife's heavy, pendulous breasts, and she sputtered obscenities onto the top of her husband's shiny little scalp. How could they not know they sounded so revolting, cursing each other in voices loud enough to carry through these professional offices? Forty years of marriage and five children, come to this.
"I bought that goddamn boat after you walked out!"
"You bought the goddamn boat after I walked out, using the money left in our mutual fund
and you paid for jewelry for your floozies with our IRAs!"
"Since I was the only one who ever put anything in the goddamn IRAs or mutual funds, I figured they were mine to do with as I damn well pleased!"
"And that's why I left! Because you put no value on anything anyone else ever does! I stayed home and raised five kids! I moved fifteen times! I hostessed twenty-five company Christmas parties. I"
"Played tennis, bridge and golf, got manicures and pedicures and facials, had to build a room onto the house just for your clothes
And you had the goddamn Christmas parties cateredP''
The loud report, like that of a gun, caused the Samuelsons to shut up abruptly and bolt apart, turn and
. And it was only Charlene, in the doorway with a party popper. Confetti drifted lazily to the floor, a curling piece of lavender streamer hanging off Mrs. Samuelson's large bosom, while Mr. Samuelson's bald head had collected a few glitters.
They both recovered from the sudden fright and looked with some relief toward the arbitrator. This was a couple dissolving after four decades; there were bound to be issues. A certain amount of rage was expected in this field. But as Charlene knew only too well, they must not be allowed to run amok. A little chaos could lead to a lot of tragedy. Domestic discord was the most volatile and dangerous of all.
"You may leave now," Charlene said. "I will ask Pam to get Judge Kemp on the line for me. I'll tell him that arbitration is not possible in your case, and suggest you be bound over for a full divorce trial. You will each have to secure private counsel. I wouldn't consider taking on either of you as a client even if I could. And don't be too surprised if you find the judge considering a hefty fine." Mr. Samuelson, "the only one who put any money in the goddamn mutual funds," became especially ashen. "As an officer of the court," she told them, "I'm obligated to tell him that you were nothing but discourteous and uncooperative, wouldn't consider the simplest of requestslike taking a seat in the waiting roomwere a continual disruption to the entire office building and have made no progress at all in two meetings. There is very little question, this divorce will cost you more than a boat. Probably more than a boat, a car and a house."
"Now just you wait a minute"
"And" Charlene barked with heat. She was small of stature but should never be mistaken for slight in any other way. "If you speak to me in a tone that carries even the slightest disrespect
" she began. The door to the conference room slowly opened and Ray Vogel stepped inside. Charlene had convinced the whole office building to agree to her choice of security service for this very reason. Ray, like his fellow security officers, was big, young, muscled and armed. When he frowned, he looked positively lethal. "Give me a moment, Ray." She turned back to the angry-faced couple. "The slightest tone of disrespect will be accompanied by a contempt and perhaps assault charge. And naturally another hefty fine." This wasn't true, but one look at Mr. and Mrs. Samuelsons' faces said they believed her thoroughly.
"Now wait a minute," Mr. Samuelson tried again, but in an entirely different tone. "There's a lot of emotion here, and I admit we got a little carried away, but we can still work this out"
"No, you're entirely too late," Charlene said. "We're all done listening to you curse each other, demean each other and make a mockery of a system designed to protect and respect the family." Mrs. Samuelson smirked and crossed her fleshy arms over her chest. "And before you get all smug, Mrs. Samuelson, let me remind you that when push comes to shove, he will probably still have the financial advantage in a trial. You might succeed in hurting him, but not without doing substantial economic damage to yourself."
Her mouth dropped open even as her arms uncrossed and fell to her sides. Charlene lifted one corner of her mouth. "Perhaps one of the children will take you in."
Mrs. Samuelson looked stricken.
"Okay, let's go," Ray said, holding the door open.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute"
"Go!" Charlene commanded. Then she turned around, went back into her office and closed the door. She leaned against it and listened to the murmurings that came from the conference room. She could hear Ray's occasional deep voice urging them to leave. The voices carried a decidedly different timbre than what she had greeted this morning. She looked at her watch8:07. She went to her desk, took a sip of her coffee and a bite of her bagel. A person shouldn't have to endure this kind of reprehensible behavior first thing in the morning, she thought. She often wished she could just get a glimpse of what these two were like in marriage, because it was difficult not to assume that the divorce was long overdue.
There was a tapping at the door. She checked her watch8:11. Another fact that never failed to fascinate herthe worse the couple, the quicker they could modify their behavior if money was involved.
Pam stuck her head in the door. "They'd like to know if you'd consider giving them another chance," she said.
"Ask them if they understand this will be the last time."
Mr. Samuelson's glittering head and halo of thin, frizzy yellow hair popped into the door opening. He came to Pam's shoulder. He grinned triumphantly while Pam looked down at him with obvious distaste. "We understand," he said.
"Good," Charlene said. "We'll start with the boat."