When Katherine Adams’ telephone rang at seven-twenty in the morning, she opened one sleepy eye and looked at it with a groan. She let it ring twice more before her conscience got the better of her.
“This better be good,” she mumbled into the receiver, “I’m on vacation.”
There was a slight hesitation on the other end of the line before her secretary, Galena Olivares replied, “You’re gonna kill me, K. J., but I swear I didn’t know what else to do. The answering service called about fifteen minutes ago. Sherri Wallace was served with an emergency petition to change custody this morning.”
Katherine opened the other eye and pushed herself up onto one elbow.
“Are you serious?”
“I called her and explained you were on leave of absence but she’s hysterical. She says they’re going to take her children. Do you want to fire me now or later?”
“Later,” Katherine said.
“I’m really sorry,” said Galena. “I know you’re crazy with leaving this afternoon, but Bert’s in Houston for depositions, Jerry is on trial in Savannah, and no one else here knows squat about domestic relations except you.”
“Lucky me,” Katherine said, brushing the hair away from her face.
“That’s what you get for being a lawyer. What can I do to help?”
Fully awake now Katherine sat up in bed.
“What time is the hearing scheduled?” she asked.
“Ten-thirty, in front of Judge Morehouse.”
“Morehouse? Frank Hanes is assigned to this case. How did Arthur Morehouse get it?”
“Hanes is on vacation,” Galena explained. “Morehouse is presiding and it’s an emergency petition, so it went to him.”
“Damn it. Dick Royal knows I’m leaving today and he pulls a stunt like this.”
“Dick’s a good name for him. They can’t make you come if you’re on leave, can they, K. J.?”
Katherine swung her feet over the edge of the bed, stood up, and stretched. Her plan to sleep late, finish packing, and take a leisurely trip to Nordstrom for some last-minute items for her trip began to look more and more remote.
“No . . . they can’t make me,” she said slowly.
Technically, a leave of absence meant she was excused from appearing in court. There was no legal obligation to be there. It was as simple as that. The problem was the other attorney had filed an emergency proceeding which gave the judge the authority to temporarily remove Sherri’s children from her home if he thought the situation warranted it. Worse, he might even place them in foster care. Katherine debated with herself for a few seconds whether to let the situation wait until she returned from vacation. She liked Sherri Wallace and couldn’t imagine her doing anything that would place her children in jeopardy. The woman was a good mother. One more attempt to talk herself into leaving fell flat before she gave up. The children were the deciding factor.
“Get in touch with Sherri and tell her I’ll call her in forty-five minutes.”
“Will do. I’ll be in the office at eight-thirty if you need me. Good luck.”
Richard Royal, Katherine Adams’ adversary, was a member of the “courthouse crowd.” Had he been born in the South, Royal might have been known as a “good ol’ boy.” Unfortunately, he was born and raised in Philadelphia. Over the years he had painstakingly cultivated a Southern accent to help him fit in better, and that strategy had worked. Along with his two partners, he had managed to develop one of the more active domestic-relations practices in Atlanta. His specialty was boutique-type divorces for clients who could pay his fees.
Early on in the Wallace case Katherine concluded that for all Royal’s talk about wanting to “settle things amicably,” he was, to put it simply, a hardball player. “Amicable” meant settling on his client’s terms.
For the past nine months Royal had frustrated every attempt at settlement they made. Each offer she submitted was either rejected as “outrageous” (in light of his client’s limited financial condition) or simply ignored. Mark Wallace, Sherri’s estranged husband, owned three cosmetic dentistry clinics. And the only counteroffer Katherine got back was so ridiculously low no competent attorney would have given it more than a passing glance.
The Wallaces had two children, both girls, who were presently living with their mother. Now with the trial fast approaching, it appeared that Royal and his client had decided raise the stakes considerably. It was probably just coincidence they chose the day she was leaving on vacation to do so. Katherine thought about that as she turned on the shower and stepped in.
Coincidence, my foot.
Fifteen minutes later she wrapped a towel around herself and sat down in front of her magnifying mirror to put on her makeup. A quick glance at the clock showed the time was seven fifty-five. She began to calculate rapidly.
Twenty minutes to get dressed. Thirty minutes to the office, pick up the file, and another thirty minutes to get to the courthouse. . . . I can just make it.
The face that regarded her in the mirror was still beautiful after forty-five years. High cheekbones and blue-gray eyes were inherited from her grandmother, and a trim figure that could still draw looks from men half her age was the result of regular workouts and good genes. Her workouts were part of her daily routine and something she adamantly refused to give up.
She kept at them throughout her marriage despite getting little or no help from her husband with the children. The heart surgeon’s excuse was that he was simply too busy with his medical practice or on his way to various business meetings. Katherine never complained. She loved being with her kids and managed to sneak in enough exercise to maintain her shape by dancing in the family room for an hour each day. What she didn’t know at the time was that half of the heart surgeon’s “meetings” were with nurses at an apartment he and two other doctors had secretly rented for their trysts. The sordid details came out during their divorce trial.
James and Alley, Katherine’s two oldest children, were now away at college at the University of Georgia. Two years apart in age, each had their own apartment, but saw the other frequently. Zach—her baby, as she referred to him, had started high school a year earlier and was nearly as tall as she was.
High school, Katherine sighed, as she applied a small amount of eyeliner to her lower lids.
Another glance at the clock told her she was still on schedule. She picked out a charcoal gray Rena Lange suit from the closet and put it on. It was professional and stylish without being overstated. A brief wave of panic hit her just as was zipping up the skirt.
It was one of the items she planned picking up later that day. A quick check of her stocking drawer confirmed her fears. She didn’t have a decent pair to wear to court.
Then it dawned on her—Alley.
Katherine bounded up the stairs to the second floor of her home and into her daughter’s room.
God, I hope she hasn’t moved everything to her apartment yet.
Ever since her junior year in high school, Alley Adams had become something of an authority where lingerie was concerned. Katherine wasn’t sure when the change took place or precisely how she felt about it since some of the things Alley wore tended to be sexier than her own undergarments. When the sales clerks at Victoria’s Secret started sending thank-you notes to the house, she made a mental note to have a chat with her daughter the next time they got together.
Katherine started to open the top drawer of the dresser and stopped. On the corner was a framed photograph of the two of them taken a few months earlier. A smile creased the corners of her eyes. She had no idea Alley had made a copy of it. There was nothing special about the photo, which showed them lying on a bed together watching television. Their heads were nearly touching. She studied it for a few seconds longer and then, with a twinge of guilt, slid Alley’s lingerie drawer open. She found what she was looking for, a new pair of Givenchy pantyhose still in their package. Fortunately, mother and daughter both wore a size six and their tastes were similar, at least in pantyhose. Katherine removed the stockings, hiked up her skirt, and began the ritual of struggling into them.
The clock read ten after eight.
When she was through she hurried down the stairs and located a pair of black pumps that went well with her suit, grabbed her briefcase, and left the house. On the way to the office she placed a phone call to Sherri Wallace.
“Hi, Sherri, it’s Katherine.”
“Oh, Katherine. Thank God. I’ve been frantic.”
“Galena gave me your message. I’m on my way to pick up your file now. What’s going on?”
“Mark wants to take my kids. The sheriff served papers on me this morning. I told him you were on vacation, but he left them anyway. How can they do this?”
The words were all coming out in a rush.
“Just calm down and tell me exactly what he’s alleging.”
“Read me what the papers say, Sherri.”
“Wait a minute.”
In the background Katherine heard papers rustling as Sherri started flipping through them.
“All right . . . he says that I’m an unfit mother and that it is in the best interest of the children for custody to be changed immediately. He also says I’m not providing a good moral environment for them.”
Sherri Wallace’s voice cracked as she read the last part and she started to cry.
Katherine said, “Look, I know this is difficult but we don’t have a lot of time. Is there anything else in the papers?”
“That’s it,” Sherri said, taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. Do you have any idea what he’s talking about?”
“None at all?”
“No, I swear to God, Katherine. Nothing’s changed.”
Katherine started to tick off different possibilities in her mind. She knew Richard Royal, and was positive he hadn’t filed the motion just for practice. Something was definitely amiss.
“I’ll call you back in five minutes,” she said. “I need to speak with the other attorney and see if he’s willing to share what this is all about.”
Katherine hung up and punched in Royal’s number. On the second ring a receptionist answered, “Chamblis, Royal, and Bullard.”
“This is Katherine Adams. Is Mr. Royal available?”
“Just a moment, ma’am, I’ll check.”
There was a pause as she was put on hold. Ten seconds later, Richard Royal came on the line.
“Katherine, how are you?”
“Not good, Richard.”
“I know, I know,” he said. “I’m sorry to do this to you, but we didn’t have any choice. I agonized about waiting until you got back from your vacation, I really did, but my client is extremely upset and he directed me to proceed.”
Yeah, I’ll just bet you’re sorry, thought Katherine. “I understand. What seems to be the problem?”
“In a nutshell, it’s come to our attention that Sherri’s been leading a parade of men through the house, and Mark feels . . . well . . . it’s just not the type of environment he wants his girls exposed to. I mean, this woman is supposed to be setting an example for her daughters, you know?”
The longer Royal went on, the thicker his Southern accent got.
“You’re telling me men have been sleeping at Sherri Wallace’s house?”
“That’s exactly what I’m sayin’, Kathy. Mind you, I have no moral objection to a woman seeking male companionship. I mean it’s the twenty-first century and all. But not in front of impressionable young girls. That’s just totally unacceptable.”
“I see. And you have proof of this?”
Royal chuckled. “I expect I’ll be able to make out my case if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Actually, I was asking if you intend to call any witnesses. I’d like an opportunity to speak with them prior to the hearing,” said Katherine.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have the file in front of me at the moment. My paralegal’s putting it together right now and I’ve got a client in with me. I did want to take your call, though. Tell you what, Kathy, let’s you and me talk for a few minutes before the judge gets on the bench and see if we can’t work things out.”
“My name’s Katherine, Dick. I’ll see you down there.”
When Katherine hung up she realized that she had just driven two blocks past the entrance to her office. Cursing under her breath, she pulled into a convenience store parking lot, and did a U-turn.
Galena was waiting in the lobby with her file. As soon as she saw the big Mercedes pull up, she ran out to the car.
“So?” she asked, handing Katherine the file through the driver’s window.
“Royal says that Sherri’s had men at her house when her daughters were present.”
“What? I don’t believe it. That meek little thing? There’s no way. She bends over backward for those girls.”
“Let’s hope she wasn’t bending over backward for some man when the kids were around.”
Galena’s eyebrows lifted. “We’re not in a good mood this morning, are we?”
“Not particularly,” Katherine answered. “Do me a favor. Check the airlines and see if there’s an afternoon or evening flight to Miami. I’m not sure how long the hearing will take and I might have to catch a later plane.”
“No problem, boss,” said Galena.
“Okay, who called this meeting?” asked a voice at the end of the car.
Katherine looked in her side-view mirror and saw the youngest member of their law firm, Jimmy D’Taglia, walking toward them. Jimmy was a born and bred New Yorker, who had graduated with honors from Fordham Law School. Hired a year earlier, the firm had been grooming him to take on some of Burt Boyd’s overflow. Jimmy was a tough, aggressive kid, with one of the most pronounced New York accents Katherine had ever heard. This made him something of a novelty in Southern courtrooms, but did nothing to diminish his string of successes over the last six months. It took him about the same amount of time to stop getting lost in the city once he realized Atlanta had thirty-eight separate streets all named Peachtree.
“Hey, Jimmy,” said Katherine.
“Hey, kids,” he answered.
“Katherine’s on her way to court,” Galena explained.
Jimmy frowned. “Aren’t you supposed to be on vacation?”
“That seems to be the general consensus. Turns out an attorney on the opposite side of one of my cases filed an emergency petition to change custody this morning.”
“Gee, what a coincidence,” said Jimmy. “He just happens to set it down for the day you’re leaving. What a mook.”
Katherine wasn’t exactly sure what a “mook” was, but she got the general idea.
“Is there some kind of physical abuse involved?” Jimmy asked.
“No, nothing like that. They’re claiming the mother is sleeping around. I don’t have all the specifics yet, but the whole thing sounds like a crock.”
“It is,” Galena assured Jimmy. “You should see this woman.”
“Yeah? Who’s the other lawyer?”
“Richard Royal,” Katherine answered.
Jimmy shook his head and said, “The guy sounds like a—”
“A royal asshole,” Galena said, finishing his thought.
Jimmy blinked and looked at her.
“Yeah . . . exactly. You sure you’re not from the Bronx?”
“Venezuela, honey. They’re a long way apart.”
“Whatever,” Jimmy replied, taking her by the elbow. “I gotta run. Listen, K. J., if I can knock out my deposition quickly, I’ll come down and help. What time is the hearing?”
“Ten-thirty,” said Katherine.
“Damn . . . you’re on your own. Call me though and let me know what happens. If worse comes to worse, I can always have my cousin Vito kill him.”
“I’ll remember that,” Katherine said, starting the engine. She was about to back out when Galena tapped on the window.
“I almost forgot to give you these,” she said, handing Katherine a thick yellow envelope. It contained a packet of photographs.
Katherine frowned. “What’s this?”
“Pictures of Zach’s birthday party. You asked me to get the film developed last week, remember? I got double copies. The drugstore was having a special.”
Katherine reached through the window and gave Galena’s hand a squeeze. “Thanks. I don’t know where my head is this morning.”
“K. J., can the judge really take her kids away?”
Katherine looked up and met Galena’s eyes. “If he believes her husband’s story,” she said quietly.
Galena thought about that for a second. “You do good by her, huh?”
“I’m sure as hell going to try.”
Copyright © 2007 by 5th Ring Enterprises, Ltd.,an Alaskan Limited Partnership. All rights reserved.