Judge Roberta Field eyed the next case on the docket balefully. She’d known it was coming. As soon as she’d seen it appear in her schedule she’d cursed and debated “breaking a leg”, since it had been too late to have another baby as a way out. She’d convinced herself that was too extreme, however, and lulled herself into a false sense of security that she must be misremembering and it wouldn’t be that bad. So she’d decided to keep working and let it happen. And now it was here.
The Bouchard-Lukas divorce.
It had been three years since the last one, which had to be a new record.
She schooled her face to a neutral expression as she entered the court. As she situated herself, she swept her gaze over the room, taking in the unfortunately familiar faces.
Captain Peter Lukas looked the same as he always did: great, woollen peacoat and an affable expression that somehow made her shiver with the cold. He brought with him one singular battered notebook that she knew contained the details of his family’s entire financial empire. Elias Bouchard, meanwhile, technically the less wealthy of the two, was in another of his exorbitant suits, this one dark purple, and was extracting from a perfect leather briefcase (that, of course, matched his shoes) enough crisp documentation that anyone would think they’d been married for hundreds of years.
This time, however, Bouchard had… escorts. Her first hope on taking in the extra figures present in court had been that one of them had finally decided to use some of their ample wealth to actually hire a solicitor, instead of representing themselves and allowing their divorce proceedings to descend into what was either a furious personal battle or - more horrifyingly - extended foreplay. However, it took only a second for that mistaken assumption to be corrected once she took in the uniform of Bouchard’s escorts and realised they were corrections’ officers.
‘Mr Bouchard?’ she asked, raising an eyebrow.
‘Your Honour,’ he said smoothly. She wasn’t sure how a smile could be slimey, but Elias Bouchard managed it every time. ‘I’m currently residing at her Majesty’s pleasure. I’ve been granted some leave to see to my, ah, personal affairs.’
‘Right,’ said Roberta. She realised she had a headache, which was a new personal best, even for a Bouchard-Lukas divorce. She reached into her handbag, extracted some paracetamol, and washed it down with her coffee.
Proceedings began, as they always did in Bouchard-Lukas divorces, with failing to agree the grounds for divorce.
‘Which one of you has actually petitioned for divorce?’ asked Roberta.
‘I have,’ they both said, in unison. They glared at each other.
Roberta stared down at them both, then looked through the paperwork on her desk and, with a heavy sigh, realised she did, in fact, have two petitions for divorce. The one from Elias Bouchard cited “desertion” by Lukas. The one from Peter Lukas cited “unreasonable behaviour” by Bouchard.
‘Mr Bouchard,’ she said, ‘perhaps you can summarise - briefly - your case for desertion.’
‘Certainly,’ said Bouchard. ‘Since we married three years ago I have seen Peter twice, each for less than two hours.’
‘Since you… married…’ Roberta frowned. She couldn’t help herself. ‘Didn’t you… divorce… three years ago?’
‘Is that relevant?’ asked Bouchard.
‘No. I… suppose not.’ Roberta shook herself and tried to remind herself that getting involved in their bullshit was a surefire way to make this worse. She turned to Lukas. ‘Captain Lukas, do you wish to dispute that statement?’
‘No, why would I?’ said Peter Lukas. ‘It’s perfectly true.’
‘Right,’ she said. She pinched her nose. ‘Great. Perhaps you could summarise your case for unreasonable behaviour.’
‘Elias,’ said Lukas, glowering darkly over at his soon-to-be-ex-husband, ‘expects me to spend time with him.’
‘Great,’ she said again, more brightly than she felt. ‘So. To recap: you both agree you’ve not lived together for the duration of your marriage, which is three years; and you both agree you wish to dissolve your marriage. Am I correct?’
Both men nodded.
‘So the quickest and simplest thing to do would be to update your paperwork on the basis that you’ve been separated for 2 years or more and you consent to the divorce and then-’
Both men began to talk at once:
‘This is unreasonable behaviour from Elias-’
‘This is desertion and I will not-’
‘Order in court,’ demanded Roberta. ‘We are going to take a short break. I strongly advise you both to consider the simplest way through this.’
Then she swept out, went back to her chambers, bashed her head against her desk, and wondered if it would be too late to run away and join the circus.
It took four hours and six more recesses to establish grounds. This included a detour into whether or not either of them could plausibly have committed adultery: Bouchard insisting he had better things to do than “sordid little affairs” with one breath and then expressing his doubts as to whether Lukas had ever spoken to another man with the next. Lukas had then insisted he didn’t need to speak to someone to commit adultery with them - which, given how he approached marriage, Roberta assumed was probably true - but that if anyone in this relationship had done so, it was Bouchard. Someone called Simon Fairchild was brought up by both parties. After that detour they attempted to dissolve their marriage based on bigamy, on the basis that Peter Lukas was married to the sea and Elias Bouchard was married to his job, at least before he’d been sent to prison.
(For whatever reason, the fact that he was in prison did not appear to be a factor in the divorce proceedings.)
Roberta had had to call them to order a few times, but for the most part they remained impeccably English about everything. Which was to say they were both exceedingly polite, while also dripping with contempt for her, each other, the institution of marriage, and the idea of affection in general.
At last, however, they agreed to her original suggestion of separation after two years (with consent).
This only happened when she started implying she might have to deny the divorce altogether. Not that she could. In any other divorce proceeding she would be able to. However, the last time she’d tried to do anything substantive about the farce that was a Bouchard-Lukas divorce, she’d arrived at work the next day to an email from the Mayor’s office about a donation from the Lukas family to the city, and a request to keep things running smoothly. However, she could have put a bit of a delay on things, and both Bouchard and Lukas seemed to realise that.
Or perhaps she was merely telling herself that to convince herself she had a semblance of control over what was happening to her. Perhaps they were merely bored of this particular aspect of divorcing and wanted to move on.
Move on, that was, to the distribution of their finances and properties.
‘I believe I am entitled to a ten percent stake in Solus Shipping,’ opened Elias Bouchard, ‘and the vessel known as the Tundra.’
‘I object most strenuously,’ said Peter Lukas, ‘and I believe that I am entitled to the Bouchard townhouse and the bones of Barnabas Bennett.’
Roberta stared at them both. ‘What. The. Fuck.’
‘I beg your pardon, Your Honour,’ said Bouchard.
Roberta sighed. She gritted her teeth. She pinched her nose and screwed shut her eyes and drew in a deep breath.
‘My apologies, Mr Bouchard, Captain Lukas,’ she said at last. She couldn’t believe she’d become first a barrister, then a judge, for this. She was going to retire to a beach in a Caribbean and she was not going to take Lukas’s boat.
And it would be Lukas’s boat, by the end of this, that much she knew. They never approached dividing their property by asking for what they actually wanted, after all. Sighing again, she glanced at the clock and wondered if calling another recess just so she could go and scream into her office was acceptable.
Forcing her face to be neutral, she turned back to the divorcing parties. Bouchard was smirking. Lukas was staring longingly at the window - although she didn’t know why, since a thick fog had come over since that morning.
‘Very well,’ she said. ‘Perhaps we could reach some sort of compromise.’
‘If Peter weren’t so unreasonable-’
‘If Elias wasn’t out for only one thing-’
‘Order in court,’ she interrupted, before they could get started again. ‘Let’s discuss Solus Shipping first…’
Distribution of the major assets were eventually settled along exactly the same lines as all previous Bouchard-Lukas divorces. Roberta even, one recess, had her assistant dig out the paperwork from their last divorce. Once she had it at her desk she could read along and predict how things would end up. At one point she made the mistake of making a suggestion - that Elias Bouchard would get two percent of the shares in one of Peter Lukas’s corporations, exactly as had been agreed three years previously - and both men furiously argued for another two hours about why that was unacceptable, before agreeing to precisely those terms.
She stopped making suggestions at that point.
Finally, by day four, it looked like all of their assets had been agreed with absolutely zero input from her. She didn’t know why they didn’t just do this outside of the court system. Unless they’d been put on this earth solely to torment her, her clerk, the ushers, and the two prison officers escorting Bouchard, who had fallen asleep several times over the course of the proceedings.
‘I believe we have everything covered,’ she said at last. ‘So if we can just-’
‘There is one more thing, Your Honour,’ interrupted Bouchard.
‘Yes, Mr Bouchard,’ she said, staring him down. Unfortunately she blinked first. She always blinked first with Bouchard.
‘Peter has stolen a treasured, sentimental piece from me while I’ve been incarcerated. I want it declared mine as part of the divorce agreement.’
‘Yes, Mr Bouchard?’ she asked. She glanced over at Lukas. He looked particularly smug as he took a drink from his cup of tea. She gritted her teeth.
‘It is that mug,’ said Bouchard, pointing at the mug from which Lukas was drinking.
It was a plain white mug, entirely unremarkable, except for the fact that it had the words “World’s Worst Boss” written on it.
‘It was a gift,’ said Bouchard, ‘from a dearly departed employee of mine. I left it on my desk when I was arrested. I did not anticipate my supposed husband making off with it.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Lukas genially, ‘you should explain to Her Honour exactly why your employee was “dearly departed”, and what that had to do with your arrest.’
‘I don’t think the fact that I murdered an employee makes the case that you should own a World’s Worst Boss mug quite as well as you think it does, Peter,’ said Bouchard.
‘I’m sorry, you what?’ said Roberta.
Bouchard regarded her with a bored look. ‘This isn’t a criminal court,’ he said, ‘and I am serving my sentence. I do hope you will keep the judgemental tone to yourself, Your Honour. However, I think I can comfortably ask you to rule that the mug is mine.’
‘I… suppose… that’s within… my remit?’ she said at last, voice strangled. She glanced at the clerk, who shrugged helplessly.
‘Your Honour,’ said Lukas. ‘While Elias is undoubtedly a terrible boss, if I might call upon a witness to prove that I am, in fact, far more deserving of this mug than him.’
‘I too have a witness,’ said Bouchard.
‘Right,’ said Roberta faintly. ‘Yes. Fine.’
Neither witness looked like they wanted to be there. Roberta supposed this was ultimately in line with the World’s Worst Boss claim.
Bouchard’s witness was a mass of scars, for which she really hoped Bouchard was not about to claim responsibility. His greying hair and obvious exhaustion initially made her place him as coming up on middle age, but he had huge, mournful eyes that reminded her of a puppy in an RSPCA advert or that cat in the Shrek movies, and instantly shaved ten years off that estimate. He directed his big, sad eyes solely at Lukas’s witness, to the extent that he nearly tripped over a chair as he walked forward.
Lukas’s witness was deliberately avoiding the puppy-eyes. Roberta had worked in family court long enough to recognise the signs. He too exuded exhaustion, but in a quiet, vanishing way. He was almost entirely colourless. Her eyes wanted to skip over him, and might have done so altogether if Bouchard’s witness hadn’t kept staring at him, making him almost the focal point of the room. Under that onslaught, however, he still held himself like a man who wanted to be small.
Pity made her swear in Bouchard’s witness first, to distract him from Lukas’s witness. He chose a secular statement with something of a muttered comment about a god not of his choosing directed at Bouchard, who merely looked amused.
When she asked him to give his name, occupation, and address, he fixed his eyes on her for the first time and the world momentarily shifted on its axis, the courtroom spinning about her ears. She gasped for breath, gripped the desk, and-
The pressure vanished. The witness now had his head dropped, inspecting the table.
‘Jonathan Sims. The Archivist. The Magnus Institute, London,’ he said. His voice carried throughout the entire courtroom despite the low volume.
Peter Lukas’s witness stared straight ahead, expression unwavering.
‘Your Honour, if I may cross-examine my witness?’ said Bouchard.
‘I think not,’ said Roberta. Bouchard raised one perfectly plucked eyebrow. ‘Your supposition is that you are, in fact, the world’s worst boss, and thus deserving of the mug proclaiming you to be so, correct?’ He inclined his head. ‘This is a claim you’ve backed up by confessing to murdering one of your employees, a crime for which you are currently in prison.’
‘A fact which I believe only furthers my case, Your Honour,’ said Bouchard.
‘Be that as it may,’ said Roberta, ‘it would be remiss of me to permit you to cross-examine another employee of yours under those circumstances. I will question the witnesses myself. If you have any questions you believe should be put to either of them that I have not, you may write them down and approach me at the end.’
Jonathan Sims glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes with something like surprise. This time the world did not shift.
‘Mr Sims, do you have any particular objection to that plan?’
‘Other than that Elias is out of prison and has invited me to his divorce proceedings?’ asked Sims. She raised an eyebrow. Not that he was wrong, but this was still her courtroom, after all. He sunk into his chair, ever so slightly. ‘No, Your Honour.’
‘Very well,’ she said. ‘Perhaps you could tell me which of Mr Bouchard and Captain Lukas is a worse boss?’
‘Easily, Your Honour,’ said Jonathan Sims, without hesitation. ‘Peter Lukas.’
‘That is- I object most strenuously-’ began Elias Bouchard, as Peter Lukas started to laugh.
Roberta groaned. ‘Bouchard, for God’s sake, hire a solicitor to pre-screen your witnesses,’ she said. ‘Mr Sims, if I keep questioning you on behalf of Mr Bouchard, have you anything that will contribute towards his case?’
Sims considered this. ‘I can confirm that he did, in fact, murder my predecessor,’ he offered. ‘And then he murdered someone else and framed me for it and nearly allowed me to be killed by the police. And then he allowed me to be kidnapped by a mannequin for a month. And then he sent me to my death and, um, two other people- well, one died and one- one disappeared that day.’ He paused. ‘I, uh, got better,’ he added.
‘Thank you for clarifying on that point,’ said Roberta drily.
Sims’ lip twitched and he gave a minute shrug.
‘Just for my records, Mr Sims, you say all of that and you still list Captain Lukas as the worse boss?’
Sims’ eyes returned to Lukas’s witness for too long for it to be a coincidence.
‘Personal reasons,’ he said at last.
‘Oh for god’s sake, Jon,’ hissed Bouchard. ‘You’re even further behind in your powers than I thought if you think that’s the worst of it.’
Sims’ eyes narrowed at Bouchard.
‘I think we can move onto the next witness,’ said Roberta. ‘Unless there are any additional questions from Captain Lukas?’
‘None whatsoever,’ said Lukas cheerily.
As Sims stood to leave the witness box, however, she could swear she suddenly felt a strange crackling tingle in the back of her skull, a buzz of static that made her headache worse.
Lukas’s witness was one Martin Blackwood, Assistant to Peter Lukas, who unfortunately also gave his address as the Magnus Institute. Roberta was starting to wonder if someone ought to slip these two some leaflets about their employment rights. Or perhaps the benefits of unionising.
‘Mr Blackwood,’ she began, at last, and Martin Blackwood’s eyes on her were politely distant, barely there at all. Jonathan Sims at the back of the room, looking at Martin Blackwood, was a far more noticeable presence. ‘Perhaps you can tell me who the quote-unquote world’s worst boss is for you.’
He was going to say Bouchard. She knew it in her bones. It would be so very like a Bouchard-Lukas divorce for them to bring witnesses for each other. Nobody divorced quite like Elias Bouchard and Peter Lukas, after all.
‘Of- of course, Your Honour,’ said Martin Blackwood. ‘His name’s Fred Hazelton, and he was a supervisor when I had a Saturday job at Tesco’s for a couple of months.’
There was silence.
Then Jonathan Sims began to laugh.
‘Martin!’ said Lukas. He sounded extremely offended.
‘Really, Martin?’ demanded Bouchard.
‘Look, you’ve clearly never worked a retail job in your lives,’ said Martin Blackwood. ‘I mean, Elias has only made me cry once. Peter’s never even got that far. I’ve cried a few times over Jon I suppose-’ Sims abruptly stopped laughing at that ‘-but Fred was the actual worst, all right. Screaming matches. Shifts all over the place. Never got paid on time. Harassment. Outing me. Bothering the others. Throwing things at people. Your lot are- are amateurs, honestly. Flexible hours. Bank holidays off. Office of my own, with an actual chair to sit on! There’s even a- a dental plan! I mean, sure, fear for my life, but I had that moving pallets of baked beans without any health and safety training, and I was on minimum wage.’ Bouchard and Lukas were staring at him with the utmost horror. Blackwood snorted at them, then turned to Roberta and gave her a brittle smile. ‘Is there anything else I can help with, Your Honour?’
Roberta briefly pulled her hand over her eyes as she sighed. ‘No, Mr Blackwood,’ she said. ‘Thank you for your time.’
As Martin Blackwood got up and grabbed his coat, Peter Lukas started speaking.
‘I think, Your Honour,’ he began, ‘since one of our two witnesses clearly identified myself as the worse of the two, then-’
At this point, Martin Blackwood was passing down between the two tables, Bouchard on one side and Lukas on the other. His hand shot out and he pushed and-
Roberta watched almost in slow motion as the World’s Worst Boss mug flew off the table and arced down, and down, and down, until it hit the ground, where it shattered into a thousand pieces.
The last dregs of Lukas’s tea puddled onto the floor.
‘Whoops,’ said Martin Blackwood flatly.
Roberta could have kissed him.
So, from the looks of it, could Jonathan Sims.
‘Martin!’ Peter Lukas jumped upright. ‘That was not your mug. I hope you understand that’ll be coming out of your salary.’
‘I’ll make a note to tell payroll this month,’ said Martin Blackwood in the same flat, uninterested tone.
‘I think,’ cut in Roberta loudly, ‘since the distribution of all major assets has now been agreed, we should adjourn until tomorrow when we can have this all written up and signed.’
Bouchard glanced at his watch. ‘Oh, I quite agree, Your Honour,’ he said. ‘We’ve got reservations, after all.’
She blinked at him.
Bouchard turned to Lukas. ‘Are you coming?’ he demanded.
‘I can make my own way there,’ said Lukas sulkily.
‘I won’t have you be late to our first date, Peter,’ snapped Bouchard.
Lukas sighed a deep, put-upon sigh, then got to his feet. Roberta gaped after them as they left together, then she turned to the two prison officers who were now hurriedly following them out the door.
‘Isn’t he-? Aren’t you-?’
Isn’t he meant to be going back to prison for murder? was what she was trying to articulate. She liked to think the message was clear enough.
‘Ah… no comment,’ said one of the officers.
‘For fuck’s sake,’ said Jonathan Sims.
Roberta decided to let that one go.
Then the court was now empty of everyone except the courtroom staff and Jonathan Sims, who was moving towards the door, and- no- wait- there was still- someone else-
‘Martin, please- can we just- please can we talk?’
Roberta blinked and shook her head. Martin Blackwood was there at the door with Jonathan Sims. Of course he was there. He’d never left. Why had she-? No matter. Blackwood was now looking at Sims, his shoulders hunched over slightly, clearly wanting to be anywhere but here. She glanced at the ushers. She wasn’t quite sure what was happening between these two, but unwanted attention was unwanted attention. She thought she’d better keep half an eye in case she needed to call security, so she busied herself moving her papers around.
‘What, Jon?’ Blackwood just sounded tired. ‘I can’t- you know I can’t-’
‘Martin it’s just- just two things. Please. I really need to- only- only you’re here, and I need to talk to you- while- while you’re here.’ He somehow widened his eyes, which furthered the impression that he was one voiceover short of a charity appeal for money.
Martin Blackwood sighed. ‘Two things then,’ he agreed.
Jonathan Sims nodded rather urgently. ‘Two things,’ he agreed breathlessly. ‘Firstly. Um. Let’s get married?’
‘What?’ yelped Martin Blackwood.
Roberta nearly fell off her chair. This was only the second time she’d ever heard a marriage proposal in her courtroom. The first had been - of course - Lukas and Bouchard, immediately after their fourth divorce. She’d fined them both for contempt for that. She doubted they’d ever paid.
‘We- we- we- can’t- what- you- you- what?’ said Martin Blackwood.
‘Why can’t we?’
‘Um. Because? The Lonely? Peter?’ By this point Blackwood was frantically waving one hand vaguely towards the door, his voice rising in pitch at every word.
‘We just attended his divorce,’ said Sims. ‘From Elias. Lonely Avatars can apparently marry Eye Avatars.’ He reached up and scratched the back of his neck. ‘It was- it was just- an idea.’
Martin Blackwood gaped at him wordlessly, mouth opening and shutting like a fish.
Jonathan Sims stood in the silence and, after a painfully long pause, gave an apologetic shrug.
‘Jon, I- Jon- what the fuck-’ said Blackwood at last.
‘Buy me dinner first.’
Sims stopped talking, his mouth a perfect circle of intense surprise. Then it split into a grin that immediately made him look another ten years younger. ‘Really?’ he said, and his voice had gone stupidly giddy.
Roberta rolled her eyes, although without much rancour, as she began to pack her papers away properly. On the one hand, it would be nice if something good came of a Bouchard-Lukas divorce other than her clerk’s overtime pay. On the other, it was increasingly sounding like they were in a cult of some sort, and Sims had just compared the two of them to Bouchard and Lukas. Neither of these facts boded particularly well for their future. If she found herself divorcing them because they got married in a rush, well… just as long as neither of them owned a sodding boat, she supposed.
‘You, um, said two things?’ said Blackwood, before she could get on with reminding them to leave her courtroom and go and either get married or do something eminently more sensible.
‘Oh, er, yes,’ said Sims. ‘We should probably talk to- well, the others for this. Er. When Elias said- said that thing about me not knowing the worst of what he’s up to, I couldn’t help but- well, I actually wanted to know what he was thinking. And he was right there. So. I think I know what he’s planning. And it turns out he might be the world’s worst boss after all.’
Martin Blackwood stared at Jonathan Sims. ‘And you didn’t think to lead with that?’ he demanded.
‘Um. The- the other thing- was- seemed- more important.’
‘Jon.’ It was funny how much more colour he had now.
‘Gentlemen,’ interrupted Roberta, and they both jumped and turned abruptly to face her, looking for all the world like they’d forgotten she was there. ‘The court will be closing for the day soon. Perhaps you should continue this elsewhere.’
‘Oh, er, yes. Of course. Your Honour,’ said Sims. His gaze on her was extremely brief, before his puppy-eyes were back on Blackwood.
‘I don’t know if I should say congratulations or not,’ she added drily, at which Blackwood’s cheeks further darkened and Sims shuffled on his feet, ‘but I suppose under the circumstances, the best I can wish is that we never have cause to meet again, at least professionally. And please, for the love of God, find another job.’
Sims’ almost-grin was a little wry. ‘We’re doing the best we can.’
Blackwood shrugged. ‘Could be worse,’ he added. ‘Could be retail.’
‘Honestly, Martin,’ said Sims.
‘Honestly, Jon,’ said Blackwood, in a clear mimicry, of Sims’ accent. Then he reached over Jonathan Sims’ head, and pushed open the door. ‘Right. Let’s go find Basira and co. Then- um- well. You- you owe me dinner.’ He went pinker than before.
Jonathan Sims beamed at him.
Roberta shook her head and shoved her final files into her briefcase and when she looked up again, they were gone.
Outside the windows of the court, the sun was shining, almost like that week’s fog had never been there at all, and she smiled to herself. One more Lukas-Bouchard divorce practically done. Probably only another eight or so more before one of them died.
It was, all things considered, a good day.