“You can have the apartment in South Beach and the BMW but I get Mr. Puppers.” Daniel Forester-Jones, soon to be just Daniel Forester again, leaned back in the crappy plastic seat in my new office and crossed his arms over his chest.
“No. Absolutely not.” His soon to be ex-partner, Jacob Forester-Jones, frowned at him. “I brought Mr. Puppers into this relationship and I am leaving with him.”
“God knows he’s the only good thing you brought,” Daniel sniffed. “Oh, no wait—herpes. You brought that too. Can’t forget about that.”
“Daniel,” I said, trying to interrupt the fight which was rapidly developing right in front of me. “Jacob. Come on now, what happened to an amicable divorce?”
I’m Rylee Hale and this is my life—helping people get separated and divorced from the ones they once loved the most. Needless to say, at times like this, it really sucks. But back to the argument playing out in my new office.
“Why, you little bitch!” Jacob glared at his partner, completely ignoring me and my conciliatory words. “I was very upfront with you about my status when we got married and we were extremely careful!”
“And yet you still managed to give it to me anyway,” Daniel flared. “And since you’ve given me such a lovely gift I’ll never be able to get rid of, I think I should get to keep Mr. Puppers—it’s only fair.”
“You can’t have Mr. Puppers—he’s mine!” Jacob snarled.
“He likes me better than you!” Daniel snapped back. “It’s glaringly obvious. I mean, who does he want to snuggle with at night? Who does he come running to with his little stumpy tail wagging when we walk in the door?”
“He goes to you because you’ve been sneaking him treats!” Jacob roared, his face turning an unattractive shade of puce. “The ones the vet says he shouldn’t have. You’re making him fat! You’re making my dog fat!”
“My dog! He’s my dog!” Daniel’s face was bright pink. “And I’ll give him treats if I Goddamn want to!”
“Gentlemen…gentlemen, please!” I raised my voice to be heard above their shouting. Still, they paid no attention.
“You mean the way you treat yourself?” Jacob shouted, jumping up. “All those carbs you scarf down are making you fat! You’re addicted to gluten, you… you fat gluten hog!”
“I am not!” Daniel also stood, clearly in a rage. “You’re just a Paleo freak! And for your information, nobody likes your famous seaweed and Sriracha Paleo rolls—they’re disgusting! The last party you brought them to, everyone threw them away as soon as you went to the bathroom.” He leaned forward. “Even Hans.”
Jacob paled. “You’re lying. Hans loves my seaweed Sriracha rolls.”
“No, honey, Hans only loves your dick. That’s right—I know you’re sleeping with him!” Daniel gave him a shove.
“So what if I am? He’s a hell of a lot better than you are in bed!” Jacob shoved back.
It looked like they were going to come to blows—right there in my brand new crappy office—the one I’d only been in a week. The one I got at a reduced rent because I promised the landlord I was going to run a quiet, orderly office—so quiet, in fact, that he wouldn’t even know I was there. In just a minute, everybody in the building was going to know I was there—especially if the punches started flying.
I had to do something, fast.
Jumping up, I pulled off one of my heels and pounded on my cheap plywood desk with it with a loud, thwak, thwak, thwak!
“Daniel! Jacob!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. “Both of you sit down now!”
That got their attention. Both of them were breathing hard and glaring at each other but finally they sat down in my cheap plastic Wal Mart chairs again.
“Now listen up,” I said, narrowing my eyes at both of them. “I’ve had about enough of you two. I told you at the beginning of all this that I am not a divorce lawyer. I’m just a humble paralegal who hands out paperwork and helps you fill it out. I do not get paid enough to listen to all your crap. I don’t care why you’re getting a divorce. I don’t care who’s sleeping with who or who gave who herpes! And I most especially don’t care who gets to keep Mr. Goddamn Puppers!”
“Well!” Daniel sucked in his breath and Jacob looked shocked.
“That’s right,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest. “I can cuss too…but I’d rather not.” I took a deep, calming breath and settled lightly back behind my desk, slipping my shoe back on as I did. “Now why don’t we all try to talk this out rationally? I know you want to end your marriage but there’s no reason to end it badly. Have some dignity—some self respect.”
“She’s right,” Jacob said stiffly. “I shouldn’t have called you fat.”
“You didn’t just call me fat. You called me a ‘fat gluten hog,’” Daniel reminded him icily.
“Daniel…” I put a warning tone in my voice. I’m not a mom but I can do a fair imitation of one when I want to. That’s what being raised by my Aunt Celia with my six rowdy cousins got me.
“Oh…all right.” Daniel gave his partner a sulky look. “I’m sorry I said anything about the herpes. And your seaweed rolls.”
“Good, this is good.” I steepled my fingers and regarded both of them. “Now I can tell that both of you really love, uh, Mr. Puppers. So in the interest of getting these papers signed and your divorce underway, why don’t we talk about a visitation schedule?”
So, we talked…
It took five hours to iron things out. Five freaking hours, otherwise known as my entire afternoon. Seriously, from noon to five I was busy making sure both my clients got enough quality time with their French Bulldog-labradoodle mix.
I’m not even a dog person.
If I had been a lawyer billing by the hour, I would have made so much money in the time it took to straighten things out. However, since I’m just a lowly paralegal, I was only making the fee I charged them to go over the paperwork in the first place.
I think it worked out to something like less than minimum wage—plus it gave me a pounding headache. When the two of them left, still glaring daggers at each other but with all papers signed and sealed, I collapsed and put my head on my desk, an Ikea special. The scent of plywood and cheap varnish assaulted my nose. I’d almost made enough during my hellish encounter to pay for it.
I sat up and rubbed my temples. What a freaking mess—and to think I’d been so excited to have my first real clients! They had seemed like such a nice couple over the phone—Danny and Jakie they called themselves. I had been surprised they wanted a divorce at all, they seemed to get along so well.
So much for that.
I wished for the hundredth time that I could get some work that didn’t involve divorce. I knew that sometimes dissolving a relationship was necessary—I’d had to dissolve my own to my no-good ex, Phillip, who was a real piece of work. But still, I would much rather be putting people together than tearing them apart.
“Should have been a wedding planner instead,” I muttered to myself. But it would cost way more to get that business off the ground than just striking out on my own as a paralegal. So for now, at least, it looked like I was stuck doing quickie divorces for unhappy couples who wanted to murder each other right in my office.
With a sigh, I heaved myself to my feet. It wasn’t a very auspicious beginning for my new paralegal firm—which had exactly one employee—me. But at least today was over. I could go back home to my tiny apartment which I now had all to myself since I’d kicked Phillip out two months ago, take an aspirin and a hot bath, and try to relax.
I trudged out the door and the long flight of stairs that led from the second floor to the first. I could have taken the elevator but it stuck between floors sometimes—a fact I’d found out the hard way my first day there. It was strictly stairs for me from then on.
I passed my neighbor in the hallway—a skinny twenty-something guy with fish-belly white skin and dirty blond hair twisted into long, scraggly dreadlocks. He had a Rastafarian air about him and always wore one of those multicolored Jamaican berets which looked like it desperately needed a trip through the washing machine.
“Hey, pretty lady.” He nodded at me genially. “What it do?”
“Hi.” I gave him a curt nod back. He was supposed to be a barber but none of the customers I ever saw going into his office—which was two doors past mine at the end of the hall—ever looked any different when they left. Well, their hair didn’t anyway. Also, I often caught a waft of suspicious smelling smoke coming from the crack under his door. While I wasn’t a hundred percent sure my neighbor was a drug dealer, I also wasn’t surprised to see that his clientele usually had bloodshot eyes and dazed looks on their faces when they wandered out of his office.
There was nothing I could do about my suspicions, so I kept them to myself. Beggars couldn’t be choosers and office space was expensive in Tampa. The small eight by ten cell of an office I was renting was pretty much the cheapest in the city. I knew because I’d shopped around a lot before settling on this place and giving my notice to my old law firm of Lauder, Lauder and Associates to strike out on my own.
At least I’m out of there, anyway, I thought, heading out into the parking lot where my beat up Honda Civic was parked. L.L. and A. had been an awful place to work, especially after my best work buddy, Zoe, ran off with a secret fiancé none of us knew about.
I frowned when I remembered the mysterious circumstances of her leaving. She’d vanished right out of the building—right out of the employees’ bathroom, in fact. She hadn’t given notice or anything and for a while, everyone thought she’d been kidnapped or abducted or something. Her two best friends, nice girls named Charlotte and Leah, had even insisted on opening a missing person’s case on her and hiring a private detective to find her.
It still seemed strange to me that Zoe would leave in such an abrupt way without giving notice at work or telling the people she loved most what was happening to her. But she must have had her reasons. I had met her friend Leah again recently, when she was looking for help with her divorce, and she’d assured me that Zoe was fine. According to Leah, she had simply been whisked away to some south sea island where there was no phone signal, by her eager fiancé who kept her there for a romantic, extended honeymoon.
“Huh,” I muttered to myself as I joggled the Civic’s half-broken door to get it to open. “Wish somebody would whisk me away from all this crap!”
I had no idea that anyone was watching me at the time and even less idea that my half-formed wish would soon become a reality. If I had, I probably would have clamped my lips shut and gone home to hide under the bed, away from any shiny, reflective surfaces.
But I didn’t have a clue. I started the car and drove away from my crappy little office for the last time, not having any idea what lay in store for me in the very near future.