At four o’clock the next afternoon, in Washington, June knocked on the door to Karen Tanaka’s office. It was cramped, like everyone else’s office, but it had a window looking out onto the south lawn and a more square shape. Karen had painted the walls a rich, creamy yellow and brought in a glass and brushed chrome desk, complemented by an ebony black entertainment unit on the side wall with a bank of four televisions, each on its own shelf one on top of the other. A simple ikebana arrangement of spring flowers adorned the desk. Framed photos of her daughters dotted the walls.
Karen admitted June with a listless smile.
“What’s going on?” June asked.
Karen looked away. “What do you mean?”
“Sharon texted me last night that something didn’t feel right when she called you yesterday.” June slid onto the small black leather chair in front of the desk and set her purse on the floor next to her. “She thought something might be wrong.”
“I don’t really want to talk about it, June,” Karen said with a soft sigh.
“Okay.” June said grabbing her purse and getting up. “I suppose I have to respect that.”
“June. Wait.” Karen slowly put down the lid on her laptop. “I’m sorry.”
June looked down onto Karen’s desk and saw the legal papers there. Karen saw June’s eyes, then sniffed.
“Yeah, that’s a court filing,” Karen said softly. “It’s my ex. George. He’s suing for custody of the girls.”
“Ouch,” said June, slowly sitting down again.
“It’s nothing he hasn’t done before,” Karen said, slumping back in her chair. “We’ve been through this twice since the divorce.”
“And yet you were able to move here with the girls.”
Karen nodded. “He threatened to sue when I got this job, but I not so delicately pointed out that he’s already blown three court-ordered evaluations.”
“The first when we first got divorced, then the two other times.”
“So if he’s blown three evaluations, what are you worried about?”
“It’s always a little dicey,” Karen said. “Judges have a lot of leeway when it comes to interpreting best interests of the children and the evaluation. Which is why George keeps filing. He keeps hoping he’s going to get a sympathetic judge.” Karen handed June the papers. “And it looks like this time he may have.”
“Oh?” June thumbed through the papers.
“My attorney called just a bit ago. There was a surprise temporary order hearing this morning. It was just luck that I got the summons yesterday, and I called Lewis immediately. So he was able to get in on the hearing. He called just now. It is not looking good.”
“They can’t hold hearings without notifying the other side.”
“In child custody cases, they can.” Karen came around the desk and plopped into the leather chair next to June. “It’s the temporary emergency order thing – the idea is to protect kids from a potentially violent parent.”
“But you’re not violent,” June said.
“They can do it for other reasons. According to Lewis, George’s attorneys are arguing that I brought the girls here to DC against his permission and that he signed the agreement under duress. Which he kind of did.” Karen tightened her lips. “Lewis said this new firm that George has, they’re scorched earth specialists. And Lewis can’t prove it, but they just happened to get a judge who’s notorious for giving the fathers custody if they show the slightest interest in the kids, never mind what the evaluations show.”
“Well, the girls are old enough, the judge will have to listen to what they say, and based on what I heard last month, they’re not too excited about being with their dad.”
Karen snorted. “They’re arguing that I poisoned them against George. And the girls’ grades are down. Part of it is just the new school. Allie’s grades are coming back up. But Kira’s are still off.”
“How bad is it?”
“Just a few percentage points, but…” Karen rolled her eyes. “I hate buying into the stereotype, but for George, anything less than 100 percent is huge. Since we got here, I haven’t been riding them that hard. And you know what? Kira’s actually been making friends – more than she’s ever had at one time. You know, Coop’s kid Rebecca. And Sharon’s nieces, Jodi and Tiffany. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but for Kira, it’s amazing. She’s always been a loner. I just don’t know how far that’s going to go with George’s new attorneys.”
“Scorched earth specialists.”
“Figures.” Karen slumped back again. “It’s just George’s style. The only thing Lewis and I can’t figure out is how he’s paying for them.”
June frowned. “I thought George was a doctor.”
“Head of emergency at County USC – which means he could get more elsewhere, but he’s still pulling in some good money.” Karen shook her head. “Lewis said these guys, they’re seriously high-end, the firm you hire when you’ve got hundreds of millions in assets to protect and you can afford the long court battle to get your kids. Lewis and I keep pretty good tabs on George’s assets – it’s not like he hasn’t tried hiding money from us – and Lewis said he has no idea how George is paying for these guys.”
June suddenly reached into her purse and pulled out her tablet. Glancing at the legal papers, she quickly started typing onto the pad.
“What are you doing?” Karen asked.
June swore. “I thought as much. I just googled George’s firm and another one that I know. They’ve got a cooperative agreement. Which means I know how George is paying for them. Or rather, who’s paying them for George.”
It was June’s turn to sniffle. “Look, Mark and I don’t talk about it much, but there is someone who has a lot invested in making trouble. This person can’t bring down Mark, so… Well, the people around Mark get hit instead. And you just got some publicity as Mark’s friend. The timing is just too suspicious.”
“You mean..?” Karen thought. “Lewis did say that opposing council did seem to be rushing this through.”
“That picture of Mark hugging you only came out a little over a week ago.” June fumed. “And your situation with your ex was ready made for this kind of attack.”
“You know, Lewis was saying that I might have to give up the girls because these guys are really good at digging up and slinging dirt and making even a hangnail look like major carelessness.” Karen started crying full on. “I don’t want to lose my babies, but I can’t let them get hurt that way.”
June reached over and gently grabbed Karen’s arm. “They’re not going to. I swear. I’m not going to let these SOBs hurt you or Kira and Allie. It’s because of me and Mark that they’re involved.”
“It’s not your fault, June.”
“I know.” June swallowed. “But, Karen, I know what it’s like to live with the wrong parent. Believe me, there’s a reason why my mother and I are estranged. I won’t let that happen to another kid.”
“But what can you do?”
“I can pay for the attorneys you’ll need to fight this.”
Karen bounced up. “June, I can’t let you do that. This could cost-”
“I know how much it could cost. Or will cost.” June got to her feet. “I know how these guys work. They’ve got George convinced that only he can save the girls.”
“Oh, he was already convinced of that,” Karen snapped.
“Then all they had to do is gently push him into the ends justifying any means to get his kids for him. And if George is the controlling jerk I have every reason to believe he is, he bought it hook, line and sinker, and these new attorneys are going to scorch the earth and then some to get George full custody of Kira and Allie. The only thing those girls have going for them is that you’re willing to cave in rather than let them get scorched in the process. And you can’t let that happen.”
Karen looked at the ceiling. “I can take care of my girls.”
“In a fair fight, you can and then some.” June walked over to Karen and put her hands on her shoulders. “This isn’t going to be a fair fight. They’ve already tried sneaking a temporary emergency order hearing past you and your attorney. And they got the sympathetic judge. No, we can’t prove it, but I’m pretty darned certain that was no luck of the draw.”
“How will I pay you back?”
“You’ll raise your daughters and protect them and keep them safe. And you’ll let me play auntie.” June shrugged. “That’s all I need. Karen, money I’ve got, and more seems to keep following me. I may as well put it to some good use.”
“Won’t it hurt if it gets out that you’re paying my attorney fees?”
“We’ll find a firm that can spin anything they throw at you. Please, Karen. Like I said, I know where this is coming from and, no, it’s not my fault. But Mark and I are the reason it’s happening and if he found out, he’d be doing the same thing.”
“Oh, God.” Karen sank into the chair in front of the desk. “I guess we’ll have to do it.”
“The first thing we’re going to have to do is get on that emergency order.” June sat down next to her.
Karen nodded. “George wants his summer visitation rights enforced. As if I wasn’t going to. I bought the plane tickets for the girls two weeks ago. I told Kira last night she was going to have to go.”
“I’m guessing she wasn’t happy.”
“She flat out refuses to go. Good thing I’ve got until the end of June to change her mind. If I can change her mind.”
“We’ll figure something out. You’re not alone in this, Karen. You have support. I’ll be with you every step of the way. Scorched earth specialists can be beaten and it can be done without using the same tactics. You have the truth on your side and it’s pretty hard to beat that. You just can’t give in.”
Karen nodded sadly. Slowly she turned to June and the two held each other as Karen at last relented and sobbed. June started crying, too.