Substitute Dad

© 2006 - 2011 By Scribe1971 (

Chapter 64 - Corporate Corruption

Author's Note: David of Hope has really come through for me once again and has done a tremendous job on this chapter. This chapter is all David's work and I am greatful for his continued assistance with this project.

I also wish to thank everyone for their kind words of support and encouragement during this difficult time that I've been through.

Our new routine was very full the first week after New Years. Wednesday evenings were going to be spent at air cadets with Kevin, Josh, Michael, and Mark. In addition, Kevin, Grant, and Ethel spent their Thursday evening at the AA, ALTeen and Ala-Non meetings. Kevin certainly had a full plate together with his school work.

At our first Air Cadet meeting, I was able to start teaching the cadets about intricacies of precision flying. I knew it was going to take three or more classes to get through the subject, but I knew that all of them were very keen by the depth of the questions they asked, which made my effort well worthwhile.

On our work front, for sure, as head of the company, I was going to have to finish my university computer sciences degree in order to set my qualifications. Not all the good-luck-money in the world was going to replace a good education or the wisdom on the best way to spend it. So with our New Years celebrations over, I registered with the University of Calgary Computer Sciences course to get my BA. With the credits I had from U of T in Toronto, I only had another six months of classes to complete. I was fortunate that I could arrange to take all my courses in the mornings, which allowed me to be in the office in the afternoons.

January was so hectic at the office for everyone. Harold was a great asset for us. He arranged for the cleaning of the building at all levels. He even contacted a number of catering companies and considering the progressive staffing of our corporation, had the restaurant in full service by the end of the first week in January.

This period was especially burdensome for Susan and Mom. Susan's responsibility was to get positions that we had identified before the public. First and foremost, Susan had to get some staff for her own personnel department to assist her with the advertising and sorting of applications that would be coming in. Next came Mom's department because she would need a number of staff to set up payroll, health benefits, and wage levels. Grant and Darren were going to need two trustworthy staff just to handle the processing of the criminal record checks. Immediately following, as the first staff member was hired, Anne may need daycare assistants.

During that first week, Mom also had a meeting with each of us that were heading up the various departments to set up the wage scales. With our ranch and housing together with the overhead to keep it up, being maintained separate from our office working budget, it turned out that as family members, we didn't have that domestic expense to be taken from our wages. So in the end, here we were, the heads of the Davis-Callahan being paid less than some of the people we were hiring. We decided that the wages we'd pay our employees would top the going market for comparable areas of employment - we wanted happy employees that would enjoy working here and give us more than 100% if they could.

On the computer programming 'product' side, the meat and potatoes of this venture, we were going to need experienced programmers with fresh ideas. That would bring James on board with the task of sales and marketing together with Angela Burton's arts and graphics department. The newspaper want ad sections became well filled with the name of Davis-Callahan Corporation.

Susan knew her needs and formatted her help wanted ad together with Mom's, Anne's and Darren's ads before New Years and they were published the first working day after the holiday. Once those applications and resumes started coming in and a short list was formed, Bryan and I, James, Trevor, Howard, and Angela had our ads nailed down and they appeared in the newspapers and on the Employment Canada net the following Monday. Susan had everything scheduled like a fine-tuned production line.

Susan decided that she or one of her qualified assistants should attend all interviews regardless of which department was being filled. Although she wouldn't assess the technical abilities of the applicant, Susan had an innate ability to keep an applicant at ease, male or female, and her questions would be to explain working hours and some of the security measures that the successful applicants would have to work under.

Bryan and I established a decree that the employees weren't going to be allowed any paid vacation time during the first year of employment because they hadn't earned the time off. The advantage to taking that approach was that we could better ensure that we'd have done everything we could to make a profit before the end of the year, which was our goal, and where our anxieties laid.

Little did we realize how that decision would send our entire extended family and us over an emotional heart wrenching roller coaster during the next week.

Once Bryan and I mentioned our thoughts to Susan on the second Monday of the month, she looked concerned and said, "We're GOING to have an executive meeting ASAP!"

With everyone gathered in one of the conference rooms, she introduced the subject by announcing, "First of all I want to announce that Darren and I have decided to get married in a quiet ceremony at the ranch with all our families in attendance on June 22nd." We all applauded, hooted and hollered at the happy news as Darren stood up beside her while they kissed.

Once we settled down, Susan continued to stand and began smiling, "The only thing that goes best with a wedding is a honeymoon. We haven't decided on that part yet, but Tom and Bryan were talking about vacations. Now I can understand their thought that new employees in a new corporation just starting up, the employees wouldn't be entitled to paid vacation until after they've worked here for a year. I can agree with that except that Darren and I will be taking some honeymoon time off and it wouldn't be a good example to set for the employees. I'll leave the subject open to the floor."

"Susan, we certainly aren't going to deny you and Darren any time you want off for a honeymoon," Bryan said, "but let's remember that we have to show a profit in the first year and that's the driving force behind our thoughts." I looked at the faces around the room and they didn't look too happy.

"I can agree with the two points of view," Mom said. "It's like a double whammy.... we lose their production while they aren't here AND we pay them for it. It does cut into any company's profit margin, but at the same time we have to set the example. What's good for the goose has to be good for the gander. If we take vacation and the employees get nothing, it's going to make them feel like slaves."

"Mom you're quite right," James said, "and a tired mind needs a rest from the drudgery of their employment, otherwise you could have a lot of people booking off sick. I can certainly understand where Tom and Bryan are coming from too, but most of the people employed here are going to be here more than year before they get any time off and I don't think that's acceptable. I can imagine that the work of a programmer can be very stressful considering the amount of concentration involved. Bearing in mind that we all have a great deal of confidence in each other and our wish to make this venture succeed, I'm suggesting a compromise.... let's shut down the office completely for one week.... the week of the July 1st weekend. That way everyone gets a bit of rest from the office and in reality because of the July 1st statutory holiday which we have to pay them for anyway, we're only losing four days of production from our employees."

"That's a pretty good deal for a new employee," Bryan said looking at me. I nodded, realizing that we'd all want some time to spend with the boys camping or enjoying the amenities at the ranch.

"James, I think you've hit the nail on the head." I said. "We are hoping to get 110% out our programmers this first year, but we can't afford to burn them out or having them produce at 60% if they're overtired. A week off after six months would be good for them. I think if it turns out we're making a good profit by December, what does everyone think about closing the office again for a nine or ten day period during the Christmas break? It'll give everyone a chance to have some family time."

"Boys, that's being too generous," Howard said. "I think with Family Day, Easter, Canada Day, Civic Holiday in August, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.... you're being more than generous and it's more than the average person should expect to get in their first year of employment." Suddenly Howard's less than generous attitude reminded me of Michael. I still wanted to have a private talk with Susan about their evening at the hotel on New Years Eve.

"Quite right Howard," Susan said, "but it gives us the right to choose only the best in their fields and together with the generous wage packages we have, we will get the best. If we do end up with any slackers, we'll know within three months and let them go after a performance appraisal. Have we solved the matter of vacations for now?"

With a resounding 'yes' from everyone, we stood up to leave. "Good! I'll let Harold Stemming know our decision." Susan said.

Then Darren said loudly, "Hold on everyone! There's something I have to say while we're all together. We know that all the new employees will be going through a security check before they're given a job here, but sometimes a person could slip through the cracks or we could have a visitor that's up to no good. I know this is going to sound like we're paranoid, but from a security point of view, Grant and I are responsible for your safety from any criminal element. I hope that there won't be any situation where your lives or the lives of others are endangered, but if it should occur, whatever the situation might be and you have to alert us, make it a point of using the word 'urgent' in your message to us whether it be an email or telephone call. If we hear or see the word 'urgent' it will tell us to come running and we will be armed."

"Heaven forbid!" Mom exclaimed.

"Don't go getting all panicky Mom," I laughed. "Anyone stupid enough that wants to put us out of business won't be working here, but Darren has a good point. Our safety and the safety of our employees are in their hands, so we should abide by their wishes."

With that foreboding thought, we adjourned the meeting.

Back at our offices, I followed Bryan into his office and closed the door. He looked at me with an eyebrow raised.

I said, "Howard's comment...."

He nodded his head seriously. "There's something I can't fathom...."

"I want to have a private talk with Susan about him," I said.

"Tonight after supper." His voice was flat, his manner serious and I knew there were a hundred things we could have said then and there, but I also knew we didn't have to.

Instead, I said, "Michael."

"Yes, I know." Bryan said.

I left Bryan's office and went into my own, no closer to realizing a problem that may or may not exist. I did manage to get some programming done that afternoon and by the time we got home, my attitude had changed completely. The boys were there to greet us and give us a hug as we entered the kitchen.

Their exuberance and happiness as they told us about their day almost made me forget there was a possible problem. Telling them about Susan and Darren's wedding plans and our intent to have a week of vacation following the July 1st Canada Day holiday made them happy as well. I could see their minds going a mile a minute making plans of what they'd like to do for that week. However, I hadn't formulated any plans in my mind for that week.

While Bryan and the boys started to clean up after supper, I sneaked downstairs to our office and phoned Susan.

"Susan, could Bryan and I come over and talk to you and Darren?" I asked.

"No problem Tom, what's up?" Susan asked.

"It's about Howard.... actually Howard and Michael." I replied.

"Uh.... sure Tom," she answered hesitantly, "can you hold off for twenty minutes?"

"You bet," I answered, see you in twenty."

"OK. Bye for now." She ended the call. I looked at my cell phone and grinned. Did I disturb an intimate moment or two? That thought stayed with me as I returned upstairs giggling inwardly. I headed down the hall for the family room, figuring that was where everyone would be. As I reached the foyer, I saw that Josh was putting on his coat.

"Where you off to son?" I asked.

"I'm off to Shelly's dad," he answered with a grin. "She's babysitting Eddie and the twins and wants a little manly support dealing with the boys. I guess her folks are going out with James and Anne."

I grinned and looked warningly out of the corner of my eye.

"DAAaad!" Josh exclaimed, "please.... it's for the kids."

I went over, pulled up his collar, and gave him a hug. "I love you Josh."

"Love you too Dad.... don't worry, we'll be good." He said smiling as he reached for the door knob, just to have the door open in front of him with Kevin filling the opening and Freddie scooting through the little space that was left. "Hi Kevin, bye Kevin," Josh said as he walked by him and closed the door.

"Hey Kevin! You're here!" Michael said striding into the foyer enthusiastically as Kevin took off his coat. "Let's get this show on the road. Tonight Mark and I are gonna get you to the moon and back! You'll love the splashdown!"

Mark and Michael grabbed Kevin by the shoulder and started ushering him to the basement stair with the three dogs on their heels.

"Hi Tom. See ya later!" Kevin said over his shoulder smiling enthusiastically as he left the foyer.

"Sure thing Kevin..." I said my voice drifting off quietly because I didn't think he'd hear me as they opened the door to the basement stairs.

The whole scenario took less than a minute and I was standing there a bit dumbstruck when Bryan snapped me out of it.

"So what's up?" He asked.

"Uh.... no, no Bryan he isn't," I deadpanned, "what's on second and Josh has gone over to Shelly's to babysit the twins and Eddie and Kevin just went down the basement with Michael and Mark."

Bryan started to giggle as he pulled me into a hug. "Oh Lord! I'm in love with the class clown! I know all that.... I meant Susan."

"I know you did," I began with a smile, "she said to come over in twenty minutes.... well, fifteen now," I said looking at my watch, "I hope I wasn't..... you know.... interrupting something."

He kissed me. "Now the man I'm in love with has a dirty mind."

"Not really," I replied with a grin. "Let's just say considerate of other people's circumstances."

"Good answer Tom. Did you mention Michael?"

"Yeah, but I'm not sure if she can tell us anything." I replied.

"Well at least we'll find out why Michael was snubbed on New Years day."

We waited for the time to pass before putting on our coats and took a slow walk over the short distance to Darren and Susan's house.

I knocked twice on the door and opened it. Before we had the door closed, Susan was standing in the archway to her dining room with a slight smile.

"Hi guys," she said with what I thought was a somber tone. I looked over her shoulder and saw Grant, Ethel, Darren, Andy, Trevor, Debbie, Mom, James, and Anne holding little Timmy in her arms feeding him a bottle of milk all around the table.

As we took off our coats, I was a bit stunned as I replied, "Hi Susan." I looked at Bryan and he was as surprised as I was.

"Hi Susan, I.... I thought...." Bryan said.

"Come on in and seat yourselves there.... I'll get you a coffee. We have a lot to discuss." Susan said. We sat at the head of the table while she poured coffee into the cups in front of us, I realized than no one else had said 'hi' and that there wasn't a happy face among them. I could feel a somber tension that I could have cut with a knife.

"We just came over to talk to Susan and Darren about Howard and-" I began.

"Fellas," Darren interrupted, breaking the silence, "Howard's a person that bears close watching."

I looked from Darren to Bryan's confused face and then to each of the other people in the room. I saw dread in their eyes.

"Tommy, I guess I should be the one to start," James said quietly. "There's no easy way to say this. New Years Eve was a bit of an eye-opener for those of us that went to the hotel that night. Things were going great.... we arrived around nine, sat at our table, ordered drinks all around and kinda got into the mood of the evening. Anne and I were nursing our first drink.... we aren't heavy drinkers at all and certainly didn't want to get wasted. I think Howard and Angela were just starting with their third when I invited Anne up for a dance. It had been quite a while since we'd been to a dance like that and we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves. The dance floor was somewhat full, not too crowded, but we did have to ease our way into some of the spaces. About half way through the second slow song, Angela and Howard had hit the dance floor and I heard Angela's voice above the din. She said, 'but the expense, we can't afford it.' Howard said, 'Don' worry 'bout it Angel, everything's under control. Got those two eatin' outa my hand. They're gonna build that great house for us and we won't have a mortgage, hell we already have the goonies lookin' after the kid and I'm gonna...' I didn't hear anything after that. I looked at Anne and she looked at me, both of us were upset, but we kept it to ourselves.... we didn't want to spoil the evening for anyone else."

I was stunned at what my brother had just said. I had to consciously close my mouth and take a gulp. "You're not joking?"

"Nobody here is laughing Tom," Anne said. "It's what we heard." Timmy let out a little squeal, so she put the bottle on the table and handed him to James, who started to gently burp him.

"My God," Bryan muttered under his breath and grabbed my hand. At that moment, we were silently sharing our surprise, anger, and frustration.

"Tom.... Bryan," Trevor said quietly, "None of the rest of us knew what James and Anne had overheard on the dance floor.... I was too busy dancing with Debbie and Dianne.... like James, we aren't heavy drinkers, and we were there to enjoy a good night out. I came off the dance floor with your Mom and she excused herself to join the other ladies in the powder room. Howard asked James to get another round of drinks for the table even though James, Darren, and I said we already had enough. It was then that Howard said, 'Trevor, gonna let you in on a little secret.... you follow me and my plan and we're gonna be running that joint within a year.... think about it.... Davis, Callahan, Burton, and Mason, but we'll be in charge. Mark my words. Believe me man, those goons don't know how to play the game. They're gonna fall like a rock.' He didn't say anything else, because James was returning with the drinks. Once he had a drink in his hand, I looked at Darren and just tapped my ear. He nodded."

"Yes I heard," Darren began. "I was surprised that although he'd had a few drinks, that he'd say a thing like that within earshot of me."

"Tom, when we got home," James began, "Anne and I debated on what to do. The next day she phoned Susan. Then Susan called everyone else except you and Bryan because we wanted to find out what kind of a problem we were dealing with. I figured both of you would have enough on your plate just getting all the ducks in a row starting the business."

"I was already dumbfounded from what Darren had told me," Susan said, "but that together with what we heard from Angela in the powder room, I knew we had to put all the information in one bucket and discuss it."

"She's quite a different lady once she's had two or three drinks in her," Mom said. "The elegant lady façade seemed to disappear into a type of redneck. We were all talking about what great dancers the men at our table were and Angela went off on this tangent talking about what a great business and financial man Howard was.... then she said something that really caught my ear. Howard has this master plan where he's going to turn the business into a North American technical training center and how he was going to make millions with the use of the Goldman money by going international."

"Boys, I knew when you phoned and said you wanted to talk to Darren and me about Howard and Michael, we had to have this meeting." Susan said with a deep sigh. "With the way the two of them were starting to over imbibe, we wanted to leave at one, but they wanted to have another drink and dance some more, so we sat at the table and watched them dance. At one-thirty they went over to the bar and came back to the table with a tray of drinks. We all refused them, so they each had two of them before Darren and Trevor went and got our coats. Howard stood up and flopped right back down again, so James and Trevor got him out to the parking lot and Anne and I had to almost drag Angela out of the hall. As soon as we got them loaded into the limousine, they passed out. The four of us went through the same ritual of dragging them into the house and putting them on the bed. It sure wasn't the way any of us wanted to start our New Year. By the time they woke up on New Years Day, I was a little disgusted, but I offered them breakfast, however all they wanted were glasses of water. They did look a sight with their clothes all rumpled up after having slept in them all night. I did ask them to stay and have a visit with Michael, but all they could ask for was a ride home."

I looked at all the faces around the room. I guess they were the reflection of the hurt I felt inside mostly for Michael, but also for the betrayal of two people who I thought were our friends - two people I trusted and I thought were a part of our family.

"When you drove by, Tom pulled Michael into a hug, and told him that they probably had a lot to catch up on," Bryan said sadly, "but Michael sort of rebelled and pushed himself away from the hug and said it was just the way they were and that he was used to it. I couldn't let him away with that, so I grabbed him into a hug and told him to get used to being hugged. What he said nearly broke my heart. He said that he wanted to get used to it and that he didn't want to grow up to be like Howard."

"Howard.... sounded so sincere on Christmas Day," I said quietly befuddled with my thoughts of this new reality. "He told Bryan and I that he'd seen a change in Michael.... we assured him that he was still Michael's dad, but then he told us that he hadn't been brought up that way. He said that respect was more important than love. I actually felt a bit sorry, yet hopeful for his and Michael's future together. Now I think he was trying to plant a seed in our heads. Come to think of it," I added, "he was bragging the night we had them over for dinner before Christmas. He wants to build a house the same size as the main house next door."

"Oh it's bigger than that," Darren said. "After we had all the bits and pieces of Howard's New Years Eve confessions, so to speak, in front of us, I went over to his house and spoke to his neighbours. I passed myself off as a potential buyer for Howard's house. He said that Howard was always trying to 'one-up' everyone. He said, 'If I buy a new car, he'd show up the next day with a bigger and better car. He's always been that way. Now he's bragging about a huge twelve-bedroom, fifteen-bathroom, seven-fireplace stone mansion he's having built with an indoor-outdoor pool at this big ranch he owns.' I said, he must have fell into a bundle of money. The man just shook his head and said it was all plastic.... no one has a job that good."

"THAT was not in the deal." I said. "One of the stipulations we made was that his new house was to be made to look like the rest of the houses here. We all have the same siding, windows, doors and verandahs and we didn't want any new house to look any different. The sizes might vary a bit, but essentially they have that same rustic western look. He said he was going to have his contractor have a look at the main house so he could duplicate it."

"Why would we want another main house?" Mom asked.

"We don't Mom," I answered. "The main house belongs to everyone that lives here. Trevor and Debbie came over with the kids and used the pool before New Years.... it was great. The door is always open for anyone at anytime, there's always food in the fridge and freezer.... it's there for anyone's use at anytime. That house has what.... eight bedrooms, seven bathrooms. Bryan and I feel lost in the house and all that space. I'm just glad the boys are there to help fill some of it. It was great having the kids there New Years Eve filling all the bedrooms."

"I think you'll find there's nine bedrooms and eight bathrooms," Trevor said with a smile. "There's a bathroom and shower in the pool wing and you're using one of the bedrooms as an office."

"Whatever." Mom said with a smile. "However Darren was right. I did a little bit of hunting on my own as well. I checked Howard's credit rating. His rating is at an acceptable level.... that just means that he's paying bills. It's not at an excellent rating, I called in a few favours with a few friends in the financial community just to find out what I could. Bottom line, he has a twenty thousand line of credit, which has two thousand still free. His Visa is maxed out every month. He owes payments on his car for the next five years and his mortgage is topped out at 90% of the property's value. At that point I quit looking. He may or may not have other credit cards. The thing that's held him above water so far is his present job at the insurance company. He's making $120,000 a year. I don't want any of you to know how evil I was to get that tid-bit of information."

"Well, it's up to us," I said with some concern looking at Bryan.

"Yes it is," he said flatly. He looked around to all the faces in the room finally ending at Mom. "Dianne.... Mom, I'm amazed at the great upbringing you gave your children. Susan.... you too.... against all odds, you molded Josh into a wonderful boy, Grant, Ethel.... Kevin is such a treasure, Trevor.... Debbie..... your kids adore you, James.... Anne.... watching the way you interact with little Timmy right now is heart-warming, but you both had a good teacher.... your Mom.... it shows in the twins. Needless to say, Josh and Mark are the reason that Tom and I exist.... they have never let us down or given us any reason to be disappointed. We've never had a problem except when maybe they had a touchy moment and they needed their space to think things through, but we've always been able to handle it the right way. Now, just by all of us being ourselves, with our desire to allow these kids to mature into happy well-balanced men and women, there's been a big influence on Michael during the last six weeks that he's been here, and the reason I say that is because it's evident that he hasn't been getting that balance that he's needed at home throughout his younger years."

"It's abuse," Andy said. "It's not verbal, sexual or physical abuse, rather it's emotional abuse. The neglect on the part of a parent to provide proper caring love and nurturing when it's needed by a child is an abuse, or if you wish, neglect to fulfill their parental responsibilities. Tom, Bryan.... what you did with Michael on New Years day was right on. At that moment, he needed reassurance and he needed assurance of parental love and you didn't let him refuse it."

"Are you sure you're going to be a lawyer?" Trevor asked smiling.

"Oh that's for sure," Andy replied with a big smile, "and I'm going to get a conviction for every guilty parent."

"I think it's pretty clear to all of us," I pondered with my thoughts, "ultimately we're all here together for one eventual goal in our lives.... the farm, the office, our lives.... all of it.... we're doing this for the kids.... not for ourselves, but to make their generation better than any generation before them.... and I think this is just one of the battles that we're going to have to fight to make that happen. I don't want us to lose that focus."

"Tom you're quite right and I agree 100% with what Andy said," Grant added, "I'm very happy that Michael was able to find his way into the air cadets and he's been able to make a good bond with Kevin and Mark. Having him live here at the ranch away from Howard has made a difference. Even Kevin has said so and I think that all the credit should go to you and Bryan. Naturally I'd be curious how serious their drinking problem might be.... is this just a special occasion binge that they have or is it a regular periodic thing?"

"I'll see if I can get Michael to tell me after I explain to him that his folks didn't stop on New Years because they were wasted," I suggested. "Now I know we can put restrictions on Howard at the office.... monitor his calls and once we set up the servers for the computer system throughout the building, we'll be able to monitor that as well. Bryan, we'll have to confront him face to face about the house though, but first we have to have concrete proof that what he intends to build is actually a stone castle, but we don't even know the name of the contractor."

"Hang on there boys, let me make a call to the security shack," Darren said with a smile as he pulled out his cell phone.

"Hi Arnold, it's Darren.... Did any of you folks at the shack see a visitor on the property within the last week or so.... a contractor.... uh huh.... yeah, a new house.... OK..." Darren pulled out a pen and wrote down a phone number. "Good job Arnold, thanks a lot." After closing his phone, Darren had a big grin on his face. "Our security guys are right on the ball. Goodstone Contracting, the owner's name is Malcolm Goodstone."

"Good for you Darren," I said, "I'm going to set up a meeting with him tomorrow."

"Hang on a second Tom," Darren warned, "if Goodstone thinks that Burton is the owner of this property, you aren't going to get to first base." Darren looked at his watch. "It's only eight o'clock, I want to give him a call right now and under the guise of security, I'll be able to feel him out."

"I know that name!" Mom exclaimed. "I saw it on a back-up invoice from one of Harold Stemming's statements. Harold used him for the design and construction of the restaurant at the office. I believe the firm's actual title is Goodstone Design and Contracting Limited."

"Good to know Mom," Bryan said, "but from what we saw and heard when the Stemming's were here for dinner, I rather doubt that Harold is aware of Burton's attempt to fraudulently take over our company."

"Should I make the call?" Darren asked.

I glanced around the room and everyone had a smile and a nod of their heads. Bryan and I looked at each other with a smile and said together, "Go for it!"

"OK. If you all promise to be very quiet, I'll put this on the speaker phone." He dialed the number and put the phone carefully down on the table while it rang.

"Malcolm Goodstone here. May I help you?" He answered.

"Mr. Goodstone, It's Darren Higgins calling. I'm the head of Higgins Brown Security. We're in charge of all the security measures out here at the Serenity Ranch. Mr. Burton explained to me that you're going to build him a new house out here.... Is that right?"

"Yes that's right Mr. Higgins. We want to break ground as soon as the frost is out of the ground."

"I was wondering if I could get in on the design stage so that all the security systems are coordinated with the rest of our complex. We do have a very sophisticated system in place throughout all the buildings and grounds."

"Well Mr. Higgins, all the construction working drawings are completed.... in fact I have a copy in front of me right now and I was going to meet with Mr. Burton tomorrow evening to present them for final approval."

"Well I don't want to hold up progress Mr. Goodstone, but we should meet as soon as possible and go over the drawings to make sure that the security measures are provided for.... there's nothing worse than having to redesign a new house after the foundations are in. When do you think we can meet to resolve any changes we may have to make to incorporate the security needs?"

"Well if it's convenient, we could meet tonight and I could have the changes made to the drawings before I have to present them to Mr. Burton tomorrow evening."

"That's fine by me. I live in the second house, it's next to the main house after you come in the main gate. When may I expect you?"

"There's no rush hour, so I'll be there in thirty minutes."

"Thank you very much Mr. Goodstone, we'll be expecting you. Bye for now."

With a big grin, Darren reached down and turned off his phone, and the room erupted with applause.

Darren held up his hands for us to be quiet. "There's no need for that folks, I was just doing my job."

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have just witnessed a master sleuth at work." Grant said. "I still have a lot to learn from this man."

With that, Darren picked up his phone and called Arnold again to explain that Malcolm Goodstone would be arriving.

While we waited for Malcolm Goodstone to arrive, Susan made another pot of coffee and we all had a bathroom break. Even Timothy had his diaper changed and put down in one of the bedrooms to sleep.

When Arnold called and said that Mr. Goodstone was on his way, Darren said, "Folks, please let me do the introductions, we have to know as much as we can before we tell him the truth."

Darren was at the front door with Susan ready to open it. The rest of us stayed in the dining room. We shifted our chairs around so that Malcolm could take a seat near the middle of the table and direct the conversation as he explained what was on the drawings.

"Good evening, Mr. Goodstone, so good of you to come on such short notice," Darren's voice boomed.

"Good evening, Mr. Higgins, please call me Malcolm." He replied. A man after my own heart I thought.

"Very well, Malcolm, I'd like you to meet my partner in crime, Susan Chambers, soon to become Susan Higgins who happens to be in charge of the Personnel Division at Davis-Callahan." Darren said. "Allow me to take your coat."

"Malcolm, this is a pleasure." Susan said, "Welcome to our home. Would you please join us in the dining room with the other members of our family."

My first impression when Malcolm walked through the archway startled me - I suppose as much as the number of people in the room startled him. Thirtyish, clean-cut, well dressed with a sports jacket and dress shirt and I should say handsome in his own right. The roll of drawings that he had tucked under his arm made him look very professional.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Darren announced, "This is Malcolm Goodstone. Malcolm allow me to introduce you to first my real partner in crime, the other half of Higgins-Brown Securities, Grant Brown, beside him, his wife Ethel who's in charge of the customer service centre at Davis-Callahan, next is Trevor Mason in charge of Technical Support at Davis-Callahan, next his wife, Debbie in charge of customer service set-up at Davis-Callahan, next is Andrew Davis our legal counsel at Davis-Callahan, beside him is Dianne Davis who heads the Financial Division at Davis-Callahan, next is James Davis the man in charge of the Marketing Division at Davis-Callahan, then Anne Davis beside him, his wife, who is in charge of the Daycare Centre at Davis-Callahan. Last, but not least, Malcolm, I'd like you to meet these two gentlemen standing beside you.... Tom Davis and Bryan Callahan, the owners of Davis-Callahan Corporation and the owners of Serenity Ranch."

"It's a pleasure to meet you Malcolm," I said as I shook his hand, "please call me Tom."

"Yes and please call me Bryan," Bryan said with a big smile as he shook Malcolm's hand.

"I've seen both of you at the office building while we were working on the restaurant. Harold Stemming pointed you out one day and said you were the owners. It's a pleasure to meet you, but I thought... or rather was led to believe that-"

"I understand that," I interrupted, "but it's going to be a long evening if we don't get down to the brass tacks of looking at the design of the new home you have prepared for Howard and Angela Burton. Later we may have some explanations for you."

Bryan and I stood beside Malcolm as he took his place in the middle of the table and started his presentation unfurling the roll of drawings and everyone gathering as close as they could to the middle area of the table.

"I'm going to start with this plan of the first floor. As you can see the foyer is the same as the main house next door," Malcolm began as he pointed to the area of the plan, "the living room leads into the generous spacious dining room with it's built-in china cabinet, which leads to the kitchen, which has a longer counter-slash-bar situation that can seat twelve people instead of the eight next door. Next we come to the family room, which is identical to the main house. Through this door in the family room, we go down the corridor to the indoor-outdoor Olympic sized swimming pool, Jacuzzi hot tub, wading pool for the kids and a twelve-person cedar-lined sauna. Going back to the foyer and down the hall to the bedroom wing, there's four bedrooms with three bathrooms. The master bedroom on this floor and the second floor is the same as the ones next door. Back to the foyer, we go up to the curving staircase to the second floor."

Malcolm started to flip the sheet over, when something caught my eye. I put my hand on the sheet and drew Bryan's attention to the lower-right corner. Clear as day it stood out:


Although we gritted our teeth, we said nothing. "OK Malcolm, carry on," I said quietly, holding my temper.

"OK," Malcolm said as he flipped the page, "the second floor is a bit larger in this house because we had to incorporate the commercial sized laundry room in addition to the bedrooms and bathrooms that we saw on the floor below. Going back to the curved staircase, we go up another floor..." he continued as he reached for the edge of the sheet.

"Another floor?" Anne exclaimed.

"Yes," Malcolm replied, "we had to add a floor so we could get the twelve bedrooms that Mr. Burton requested. He thought it was a splendid idea, but he wanted an elevator added to service all four levels of the house. It's right here by the main stair. Now the third floor is again, the same layout bedroom-wise as the first floor, however there is another separate, yet smaller staircase through this door that leads up to the open, yet finished attic space."

"We have three bedrooms in the basement of the main house." Bryan commented.

"Yes you do, however Mr. Burton requested that in addition to the billiard room and other facilities in the basement, he also wanted a four lane bowling facility and a tiered media room with a projection TV."

Although I was getting angrier by the minute, Susan squashed my anger with a continuous giggle. Finally she exclaimed, "A four-lane bowling alley! A FOUR-LANE BOWLING ALLEY! That's absolutely ridiculous!"

All of us started to laugh when James exclaimed, "I was bowled over at the elevator!"

After a moment, I raised my hands. "Please, please compose yourselves. Malcolm please excuse our laughter. There's a great deal we have to explain to you, but first could you please show what this house looks like on the outside."

"By all means," he replied as he slowly started to turn to the next sheet. "I don't have a rendered perspective, but I do have the elevations of all four sides of the structure. Our design team it's rather proud of it's intricate, yet simplified gothic style."

All our mouths dropped and we gasped as we gazed at the front elevation of the house. It didn't matter if you were looking at it upside down or not, as some were from the other side of the table. It didn't have pointed arches, but it certainly was an imposing stone-clad three-story structure with a steep roof and six dormers in the attic.

"Definitely not what you would call a ranch house." I said with a bit of disgust. "Actually it may look good beside a gothic cathedral, or as part of the Parliament Building complex, but certainly not on this ranch."

"Malcolm, in all honesty, it really is an impressive building and I can't imagine how much time your team has spent with the design," Andy added, "but something I have to ask.... do you have a written agreement with Mr. Burton?"

"Actually all I have is a letter on your corporation's letterhead that states I am to provide final working drawings for the construction of a twelve-bedroom house for an amount not to exceed ten million dollars."

"Would it be possible for us to have a copy of that letter?" Andy asked.

"I suppose, but could you tell me why? Malcolm asked.

"Malcolm, we've been duped.... so have you." Darren said. "Yes, I got you here under the pretense of going over the security system and for that, I apologize. All of us here had heard certain disparaging remarks come our way about and from Mr. Burton, and, we needed to see some true documentation that proved it. Checking with a few important people, we've found out that Burton is probably only making it from pay check to pay check. Those set of drawings are proof enough for us to have Burton arrested for attempted fraud. Tell me Malcolm, have you ever searched Land Titles to determine the true owner of this property?"

"No not yet." Malcolm said confidently. "That wouldn't come into play until we had to put man, materials and equipment on the site starting with the initial survey team to determine the actual location of the building.... it all has to do with the legal liabilities of the Owner and ourselves and the assignment of insurances."

"Well if you do a Land Titles search, you will find that there are only two Owners of this property. One is Tom Davis and the other is Bryan Callahan." Darren clarified.

"Burton doesn't own any of it?" Malcolm asked incredulously.

"Not a square inch," I replied, "neither is his name a part of our corporation title.... collectively the entities in the office building are simply known as Davis-Callahan Corporation. This Serenity Ranch is a corporation unto itself as well, separate from the corporation at the office building each with their own limited legal liabilities. Collectively all our assets are under the umbrella of Davis-Callahan Incorporated. The subtleties in the titles are very meaningful."

"But the letterhead says..." Malcolm stammered.

"That's why it's important for us to have a copy of that letter," Andy said. "Also, I realize there's a copyright law about the design property of the designer and the drawings are for your own use only, but I would like to have a copy of them as further proof of fraud, especially the signed letter.... fraud in the amount of ten million dollars would carry a hefty jail sentence.... depending on the court.... up to ten years."

"Malcolm, tomorrow night at this time," Mom said quietly, "I want you to present me with a statement of your expenses in the design and production of the drawings and any other expenses that may have been incurred on behalf of Mr. Burton. Make sure you include 10% overhead and 10% profit. I will see to it that the bill gets paid in full.... in fact if you can phone me the amount before three tomorrow afternoon, I'll have a check cut for you by seven tomorrow night. This family will not tolerate you suffering any financial burden brought about by this huckster."

"How much has he paid you so far?" I asked.

"I didn't ask for any retainer. It seemed to me that Davis-Callahan Burton was a big enough corporation that it wouldn't default on its bills and after all it was to be a ten million dollar feather in my cap. I.... I can't believe I fell for this."

"Am I right to assume that we do not want Angela or Howard Burton as a member of the Davis-Callahan Corporation?" Darren asked as he held up his hand.

Silently all of us put up our hands in unison.

"OK then, let's meet here tomorrow night at 7:00 PM." Darren continued, "I'll phone Howard and under the same story as I gave you Malcolm, I'll say it's so we can review the drawings relative to the security system requirements. Malcolm, he may phone you to confirm that."

"I'll be busy tonight," Andy announced. "I have to draw up a document that we'll have to get both Burtons to sign relinquishing all rights to any claim of retribution against Davis-Callahan Incorporated."

"Andy, it's good to be prepared," Grant said, "but if we confront him with what we know and he becomes all sorry and apologetic, we may wish to reconsider our present decision to remove them from the corporation. They may come up with booze or drugs as an excuse and we could put both of them in rehab and they may turn out to be a good asset to the corporation and the community. A second chance is always a worthwhile direction to go. It worked for me."

"I agree Grant," Bryan said, "it's something we'll have to consider at our meeting with them. More important though is Michael. What if he blows out of here and demands custody?"

Just then Trevor's phone rang. "Hi sweetheart.... Oh my God it is too, we'll be right home Shelly." Closing his phone he said, "Grant, James, we have to get going now.... it's quarter to ten and the kids want to get to bed. School tomorrow."

"Right," James said as he jumped up.

"One last thing," I said holding up my hands, "What has been said in this room STAYS in this room. If the kids question us, just say that we were having a coffee party and we lost all track of time telling stories of what it was like when we were kids. Tomorrow night we'll run through this same scenario with Malcolm presenting the drawings to the Burtons."

With that, Anne almost ran to the bedroom to bundle up Timothy from the cold and get his other things together while the others went to the foyer to put on their coats. After a quick goodnight to James, Anne, Grant, Ethel, Trevor, and Debbie we bade goodnight to Malcolm.

"Andy, I'm going to take these drawings with me for tonight." Malcolm said. "It may appear suspicious if I'm not carrying them when I get here tomorrow night."

"Agreed," Andy said, "just don't change anything with respect to the owner's name in the right hand corner."

"I promise, I won't change a thing. I can't thank all of you enough for saving my skin on this. Good night for now." After watching Malcolm leave we went back into the foyer to put on our coats.

"Bryan, do you guys have an OCR scanner hooked up to your computers?" Andy asked.

"Yes of course we do," Bryan replied, "but I want to talk about what we're going to do to stop Burton from taking Michael from us into God only knows what!"

"Bear with me. Do you still have your copy of the custody agreement giving you guardianship of Mark?" Andy questioned further.

"Of course I do... it's in our office in the basement." Bryan replied with a smile to match mine as both of us put two and two together.

"Good!" Andy exclaimed. "The only question we have to answer now.... and I mean right now.... is who will be assigned to be Michael's guardian? Darren, you're a single man without a record of child rearing and that makes you an unlikely candidate.... Susan, you're a single Mom with an outstanding record of child rearing, however, you would stand a better chance if you were already married. Bryan, you already have legal guardianship of Mark and the courts could consider you acceptable. Tom, legally you haven't got a thing going for you.... however what if something was to happen to Michael at air cadets, who is registered as a prime contact in the event of injury?"

"I'm sure it would be Howard or maybe Angela." I replied.

"Hmmm," Andy pondered, "How about at the school?"

I smiled. "Actually it's me. Michael was registered a week or so after the other kids were registered. After Howard agreed to have him under our security screen here at the ranch, he actually gave me a signed note to give to the school saying that I was to be contacted in the event of ill health or injury."

"That's a good background document in itself and it makes you another possible candidate, however, without a signed custody agreement, we wouldn't stand a hope in hell in the event of dispute by the Burtons. We'll have to scan that custody agreement into the computer right away and I'll have to go through it word by word making sure all the names, dates, times and places are correct for our situation."

"Andy, that document is fifteen two-sided pages of tiny type. It'll take you forever!" Bryan exclaimed.

"It's for Michael.... I don't care if it takes all night." Andy replied.

"Maybe we can get it done sooner if the four of us go at it together," Susan suggested with a smile and a wink.

"Susan, you're a lady after my own heart.... I wanted to suggest something like that." Bryan said.

"Are you two sure I didn't bring you up from childhood?" Mom asked glancing between Susan and Bryan with a wide smile. "You both turned out just like one of my kids."

Darren shook his head. "Alright that's enough of the blarney.... it's too soon to be patting ourselves on the back.... the four of you get next door and get it done. I'll walk you home Dianne."

As soon as we walked into the house, the kids were on us.

"Dad! Where have you been?" Josh exclaimed. "Hi Mom, hi Andy.... what's going on? What are you doing here?"

We laughed together at the confusion our entry had made for the boys.

"We were having a gabfest over coffee about old times and we lost all track of time. Now have you guys had a snack?" I asked.

"Yeah," Mark drawled, "The cookie jar was empty, and so we had to have peanut butter and banana sandwiches."

"Yeah, but they were good!" Michael said as he wrapped his arms around me. This was the first time he'd ever initiated such an action - I was taken aback - what had prompted this? It crossed my mind that maybe these kids knew more about the discussions that had occurred next door. For the brief moment that I held Michael, I realized that he was reaching out for something he needed. Thinking that one day he may become as precious to me as Josh and Mark overwhelmed me and I nuzzled my nose into his hair.

I eased our embrace and looked deep into his eyes. "Thank you Michael.... I needed that," I said with a smile.

"Me too," he replied quietly as he returned to stand beside Mark.

"Dad you're dodging the bullet." Josh said suspiciously. He squinted his eyes and stared at Andy and with a suspicious voice, slowly asked, "What's goin' on Andy?"

With an equally slow suspicious James Cagney voice, Andy replied, "C'mere kid.... I got sumthin' I gotta tell ya?"

Josh approached Andy slowly and as soon as he could, Andy embraced him and continued with his gangster voice. "Ya see kid, it's like dis... Yer mudder's got dis legal document, see.... dat I gotta change fer Bryan and I don' wanna have ta retype da SOB, see.... so yer dad an' I are gonna hold yer mudder hostage 'til Bryan copies it through his OCR... dat's an optical character reader for all you numbskulls.... den I gotta make da changes, see.... den we'll set yer mudder free. Got it kid?"

"Mom, are you sure it was just coffee?" Josh giggled as he stepped away from his embrace with Andy.

Laughing, Susan said, "Yes Josh, I'm sure, but I do have a hundred job descriptions to go over before they're put in the paper and Andy wants to make sure that we aren't potentially promising something we can't legally deliver."

"Whoa!" Mark exclaimed, "Watch it guys, she's using those big words again and that could mean trouble. We better get to bed."

"Good idea," Bryan said. "I'll be up to say goodnight as soon as I show Andy how to use the OCR functions."

"And I'll be up just as soon as I fix Andy and Susan a pot of coffee." I said.

"OK." The three of them said in unison before they went to Andy and Susan, gave them both a hug, and wished them good night.

I went ahead and made a fresh pot of coffee and four cold cut sandwiches while Bryan, Andy, and Susan headed for the basement. I quickly sliced the sandwiches as the coffee pot finished its last gurgle.

By the time I got into Mark and Michael's room, they were in their bunks.

"Tom, I hope my dad changes after the house is built." Michael said as I approached. "Do you think it's because I'm gay he doesn't hug me?"

"I doubt that very, very much Michael," I answered as I reached up to smooth his covers. "You're dad has always understood that part of your life.... I think that right now he just has a lot of other things on his plate and he probably wants to make the future as best as he can for you."

"Yeah, I suppose," Michael added, "he's always had a bundle of stuff to do all at the same time. They're always talking about money, money, money. He hardly ever relaxes."

"I was talking to Susan tonight," I said calmly as I could, "and she said he was funny at the New Years dance and that he and your Mom got pretty wasted and the next day he was kinda hung over and I guess a bit embarrassed, so that's why they didn't stop and wish us a Happy New Year."

"Yeah, they do that on special occasions like their birthdays or their anniversary. Sometimes lately, it's just because Dad got a raise or they got a real bargain on a new car or something." His voice was empty as if he was resigned to a bad situation.

"Where would you be if they took off on those occasions?" I asked.

"Oh I'd go next door and play videos or something with Alan.... you know him.... he's in air cadets.... he was the one who got me interested in it and Dad was all gung-ho about me joining when I told him I wanted to go too."

"I'll bet you're Dad was pretty happy the day you soloed." I asked optimistically.

"Oh yeah, that night, well.... they went out celebrating again." Again, that sad monotone was in his voice.

"Well I can understand that.... Michael, I want you to know that you can hug me anytime you want." I said with all sincerity as he accepted my invitation for a hug. I kissed his forehead. "Sleep tight and be happy." As he rested his head on the pillow, he had a smile on his face that warmed me to the core.

I felt a tug on my pant leg. "Hey don't forget me Dad."

That put a grin on my face as I sat down next to Mark.

"Hey there peanut butter and banana boy. Have you turned Kevin into an astronaut yet?" I asked.

"Not quite, but he's getting there." Mark smiled. "He nearly peed his pants while we were coming through the atmosphere with flames shooting all over us. I think he forgot it was just a kind of video game."

"Didn't bother me," Michael said from the top bunk.

"You wouldn't believe how great Michael was," Mark continued, "I got us into orbit, but Michael got us at just the right angle to hit the atmosphere so we wouldn't bounce off into never-never land."

"Both of you are going to be great pilots one day," I said.

"Are we going to try out some of that precision flying you're teaching us at air cadets?" Mark asked.

"I hope so," I replied, "that's the plan anyway. After three more ground classes, we'll go to the airport and in a number of rented planes, we'll try it in pairs first, then in threes and work our way up to four planes in formation.... that is if all of the pilots who have soloed are disciplined enough. It takes a great deal of concentration..... constantly being aware of your own plane's attitude and speed, the other planes in your formation and their speed, altitude and attitude, the speed and direction of the wind or wind gusts. The variables are endless and I could go on for an hour, but it's time for you both to get to sleep.... tomorrow's another busy school day for all of us. Love you Mark," I said finally as I hugged him and kissed his forehead.

"Love you too Dad," he said as I stood up and started for Josh's room. As I reached the door, I heard a very faint 'Love you Tom.'

I turned and went back to the bunks and whispered in Michael's ear, "Love you too Michael."

When I left the room, Bryan was standing there with a big smile. Quietly he whispered, "I heard every word." Then he went in to say his good nights to Mark and Michael.

Entering Josh's room, he closed the book he was reading and reached up with his arms for a hug, which I was more than happy to enjoy with him. He pulled back from me and looked straight into my eyes.

"How serious is it Dad?" He asked.

I looked at him and smiled. "What are you talking about Josh?"

"It's what I feel.... like an awful.... evil.... it's going to hurt all of us."

The smile left my face and I shook my head slightly, hoping that I could say the right thing. "Josh, I hope that someday I can tell you why you feel that way at this moment, but for now I... I can't.... Do any of the other kids feel the same as you?"

"No I don't think so, at least they didn't let on if they did."

Suddenly I had a strong wave of parental protection overwhelm me, but it was intermingled with probably the same dread that Josh was experiencing. "Son, please don't say anything to anyone, but tomorrow I need you to use your leadership skills and take Michael, Mark and Kevin over to the Masons. Together with Shelly, we'll need you to keep the twins and Eddie occupied for a few hours. I don't want you here in the main house OR on the road while the rest of us are meeting next door with Darren and Susan and all the other parents of the Corporation."

"Ok dad, I can do that if it'll help. We'll take the dogs with us and see if we can teach them some new tricks. Dad, even if I don't know what it is, I know you'll win the battle for everyone." Josh said with a smile. "Dad?"

"Yes son."

"Michael loves you."

My smile returned as I nodded my head slightly. "I love him too. Are you jealous?" I teased.

Josh giggled. "Dad, I know you have enough love to share with all the kids here. I'm more than willing to share you with them."

"You're right son, but you will always be number one." I said.

"Oh dad, don't let Bryan hear you say that." He said with a dreary grin.

I rubbed noses with him. "He already knows Josh and he's not jealous either. Now keep your eyes closed while I tell you the story of the three little pigs." I teased.

"I love you dad, but now I'm too tired and you can save THAT story for Timothy."

"I love you too son," I said as I kissed his forehead, then left for the kitchen.

I found a good sized tray and started loading it up with the carafe from the coffee maker, sugar and cream, four cups and the plate of sandwiches when Bryan came in.

"They're all asleep," he said. "Here, I'll carry the carafe, you take the tray." As we made our way to the basement stair, he added, "Maybe the asshole was right, an elevator would come in handy sometimes."

When we got into our office, Andy and Susan were at both computers and between them were two chairs and a few typewritten pages of material. I put the tray on the table in front of the two chairs and poured each of us a cup of coffee and sat in one of the chairs.

Susan looked up from her work. "Michael loves you, you know," she said quietly.

I nodded my head hesitantly. A terrible thought just came to me. "Yes, I know Susan and I love him too, but unless Grant is right with his thought of 'sorry-sorry', Michael will end up despising me for doing this to his father and mother."

She stood up and angrily pointed her index finger at me. "Now you listen to me.... you... you dumb Davis!" Susan said clenching her teeth. "Every parent, all ten of us, that were at that meeting tonight knows the ramifications of what will happen tomorrow night. All of us know what a treasure Michael is. All of us know the great influence you and Bryan have had on Josh and Mark. All of us know how Michael may feel about this when the dust settles AND all of us are here to support you and Michael and protect him from his father. When the time is right, all of us.... will explain what happened and all of us, the parents and kids together, will be there to support Michael. You're not alone in this. Now... sit there, drink your coffee and eat a sandwich, it's going to be a long night."

I shamefully sank back in the chair after being chastised like a naughty boy. I looked over at Andy and he had a smart-ass smirk on his face. I looked up at Susan as she stood there with her hands on her hips.

"I..... I'm the 'dumb Davis'?" I asked with a sheepish grin. Both Andy and Bryan burst into a laugh and Susan's face softened into a laugh as she enjoyed my response.

"Maybe once a year," she replied with her usual warm smile. "I just hope I don't have to remind you again."

With that, Andy got serious and told us what he and Susan were doing and that it was Bryan's and my job to read the document and mark-up what we knew or thought should be changed. It was obvious that Andy was the expert in this field, Susan was less experienced, and Bryan and I were approaching all the legalese as novices. The tedium of reading every word, understanding it, then re-reading a sentence so that all the words made sense and then put the sentences together and read the paragraph to understand the whole context made me realize why lawyers went to university for all those years. The intensity of concentration for Bryan and I was almost excruciating. Conversely, I think Andy or Susan would have the same problem understanding all the computer code that Bryan and I dealt with on a day-to-day basis.

By midnight we were halfway through the document and Darren came in. "How's it going?" He asked quietly kissing Susan on the cheek.

"We just passed the halfway point dear." Susan replied.

Darren looked at the empty coffee carafe and said, "I'll go make another pot." When he returned and poured all of us another cup, each of us had a stretch and yawn break. "I stopped by the Security shack and told them that I wanted all four of them on duty tomorrow night. I know it sounds like overkill, but I'm not taking any chances."

"Darren, I don't think it is overkill. Tonight when I was saying goodnight to Josh, he said he felt an awful evil and it was going to hurt all of us. Sometimes he gets these premonitions.... anyway I told him I couldn't tell him why he was feeling that way, but I asked him to use his skills as a leader and get all the kids to come to Trevor and Debbie's house tomorrow night. He said he would and they'd even take the dogs to teach them some new tricks. It's not often that Josh is wrong about something and I don't want anyone in this house tomorrow night.... it's too close to your house."

"I appreciate Grant's thinking," Bryan said, "but I always say, hope for the best and prepare for the worst. If Josh is feeling that way, we can't trust the Burton's."

"By the way," I added, "I told Michael that they didn't stop and wish us a Happy New Year because they were a bit hung over from the night before and he said that they do that on special occasions like anniversaries and birthdays, but it was becoming more frequent for any excuse at all like a new car or a raise in salary. He said he'd go next door and play video games with the boy next door. The boy's name is Alan Durham.... he's an air cadet which is how Michael got into the air cadets as well. Michael said his father was all gung ho about him joining the cadets when he heard that. The old 'keeping up with the Jones' attitude was even affecting Michael then."

"Full circle sort of thing, isn't it?" Susan asked. "And here we are almost stuck with a twelve bedroom castle for three people."

"Yeah," Bryan said, "they were planning a big family reunion for the long weekend in August. Not going to happen now."

"Oh crap!" Andy exclaimed. "This document we're working on doesn't have any provisions for other relatives. In Bryan and Mark's case, there were no other blood relatives that could gain custody of Mark. In this case, the Burton's could have one of their brothers or sisters contest this document and they could get custody."

"Andy, I think I know of an expert in this field that may be able to help. Al Burger's niece, Katharine works for the Children's Aid in Ontario. I won't be able to phone him until five this morning and get her number. Maybe she could nurse us through it or even give us another document that would exclude other relatives."

"OK. That may be our best shot on such short notice." Andy said thoughtfully. "I know the professor at the university wouldn't be able to help us on such short notice. In the meantime, let's carry on with this document until we're finished. At least we'll be that far ahead of the game. Regardless though... no matter how well we do this, it will not stand up to any real scrutiny or serious challenge."

So, with another cup of coffee in front of us, we sipped and painstakingly worked our way through the document while Darren crashed on top of one of the beds in the basement. By 2:30 AM Tuesday morning we were finished with both documents - one for custody of Michael and the other relinquishing all interest that the Burton's had in the Corporation.

Susan woke up Darren and they went home and Andy crashed in the main bedroom in the basement that had it's own ensuite and I knew was stocked with a few new toothbrushes and clean towels. The three of us hugged each other, totally exhausted, zinged with caffeine, and said good night to each other through bloodshot eyes.

Bryan and I took the tray back upstairs to the kitchen loaded with all the dirty dishes and left them in the kitchen sink before we headed upstairs, brushed our teeth, and hit the bed. I set my cell phone alarm for 5:00 AM. Two hours sleep - how the hell were we going to get through the next day with just two hours sleep? Actually it was a bit less than that - we both tossed and turned in our caffeine overdose together with an anxiety of our future together with or without Michael.

After ten minutes, Bryan whispered, "I love him too."

"I know you do," I said and with a deep sigh, both of us fell into an exhausted sleep.

I suppose my military discipline kicked in or I was running on pure nerve or caffeine-activated adrenalin because as soon as the phone alarm went off, I was up and sitting at the side of the bed turning it off. Bryan was still in a soft snore, so I decided to let him rest. I pulled on a pair of sweats and headed for the basement to wake up Andy. He had to be in on everything that was said. It took him just a few minutes to empty his bladder and splash his face before he was at my side again while I phoned Al Burger from our basement office. It was 7:10 in Toronto.
"Good Morning, Tom?" Al said, wondering why I was calling at this time of the morning.

"Good morning Al, I guess you have call display. I'm sorry to disturb you this early in the morning, but I think you can help us with an emergency that's popped up here at the ranch. My brother Andy is our legal counsel and he's here now."

"A problem already? Can you tell me about it in ten words or less?" Al said and I hoped he was joking.

"It has to do with child custody. We've drawn up an agreement, but none of us are experts in the field and there is the possibility of complications," I said.

"This sounds very serious!" Al said, with concern. "My niece Katharine is very good at dealing with those circumstances and I know she's dealt with something like this before. If she can't, she probably knows someone who can."

"Sir," Andy interrupted, "I'm Andy Davis.... we do have to resolve this by seven tonight."

"Andy, I've heard so many good things about you from Sean and Jake."

I could hear Dana, Sean and Jake in the background asking what was going on. Al told us that Katharine wouldn't be in the office for another half-hour and that she never turned her cell phone on until she arrived.

"We have a law here in Ontario that you can't talk while you're driving."

He gave us her cell number and said that we should call her in exactly thirty minutes as she's getting out of her car, because that was when she could give us her undivided attention. Any later and she would be going full tilt at the day's work.

"Please call us later and let us know what's going on. I have three others here, besides myself, who are quite concerned. I know it's serious, if you're calling at 5 a.m. your time."

"Thanks Al, say 'hi' to Dana and the boys for us." Andy said.

".... and I'll call you back and give the whole story later on." I said.

"Ok guys, Bye for now." He ended the call.

I sighed deeply, "Another half hour. Let's go make coffee and have some Captain Crunch. Maybe that'll perk us up before we phone Katharine. We'll get Bryan and the boys up at 6:30, then we can go for a short run with them."

By the time we finished our cereal and returned to the office it was 6:00 AM on the dot and we dialed Katharine's cell phone with the speaker on.

"Good morning, Katharine here." She answered.

"Good Morning Katharine, it's Tom Davis calling. Your Uncle Al told me this was the best time to call."

"Tom! Tom Davis!" she exclaimed. "Good old Uncle Alan, he knows me well. He's told me so much about you and your family. I'm just walking from the car to the office right now. This must be something special if Uncle Alan gave you my number. What can I do for you?"

"I'm here with my brother Andy, and we have a bit of a custody problem with a boy who's been with us for the past six weeks, although we've known him for more than a year now." I knew I had to choose my words carefully. "It appears that his father and mother may be having some legal problems that could end them up in jail."

"Katharine, it's Andy here...."

"Andy!" she exclaimed, "I've heard a lot about you too from Sean and Jake and your time with them at camp. You both have my complete attention. Go on."

"Katharine, over the last six weeks the boy," Andy continued, "Michael, has been under the care of Tom and Bryan and he's blossomed for lack of a better term. Michael's gay and Mark Callahan is his boyfriend. Notwithstanding, it's become apparent that Michael has suffered emotional neglect by his parents.... in my opinion almost to the edge of emotional distress. With this impending legal action that may be taken against Michael's parents, all of our extended family wish that Tom and or Bryan get legal guardianship over Michael."

"Well I'm certainly aware of the influence that Tom and Bryan have had on Mark and Josh.... Uncle Al has told me a lot about that. More to the point-" There was a big bang,

"Katharine are you there?" I asked thinking we'd been disconnected or worse.

"Yes, I'm here. That was just the stair door shutting. I take the stairs instead of the elevator. Some days it's the only exercise I get. Go on Andy,"

"I'm in my last year of law school Katharine," Andy continued, "and more than a year ago, together with a law professor, we drew up the legal custody document that gave Bryan guardianship over Mark. Initially I thought, in this case, I could just copy the document, change the names, dates, and other specifics to cover the transfer of Michael's guardianship to Tom. So, that's what we did until the wee hours of this morning. Then it occurred to me that the document we were using didn't cover the exclusion of other relatives. That is, Mark and Bryan have no aunts, uncles, grandparents or siblings that might possibly contest the agreement. In reality the agreement for Mark worked because nobody took too close a look at it and nobody thought to contest it. In this case, Michael has relatives and they may well take action."

"Well, that is a bit of a pickle," Katharine exclaimed. "I deal strictly with Ontario cases so all I can really do is offer generalities. In general, you're looking at a huge uphill struggle if any suitable relative chooses to seek custody in the event that his parents are incarcerated."

"I figured as much. I want this new document to be as iron clad as possible and, if possible to appear more iron clad than it really is. If this came to a court battle, I feel it would be most detrimental to Michael's psyche." Andy replied.

"OK, I just got to my office. Let me unload this bundle in my arms, get my coat off and boot up my computer." After a pause, she returned. "What do you know about the relatives?"

"Not a great deal Katharine," I said. "From what Angela and Howard have said, that's Michael's parents, Howard has a brother and wife that are somewhat homophobic, and Angela has a brother, Art, who is gay. He's helped them through the trauma of what it's like to have a gay son. Michael thinks he's pretty cool. Michael's parents are planning a family reunion here at the ranch in August, so I won't know much more until I meet them."

"Oh I can see where's there's going to be one battle royal for custody if this ever ended up in the courts, and your right Andy, even if Michael wasn't already suffering parental neglect now, he sure would be disturbed after enduring an event like that. Do you have a copy of the document you've prepared that you could fax, or better yet, email to me?"

"Yes, it's right here on the computer," Andy replied. "What's your email address?"

Andy opened my Outlook Express and typed the email address and verified it with Katharine, then attached the custody agreement to the message and pressed send.

Once we knew it had left my computer, I said, "It's on its way Katharine. You should get it momentarily. By the way, this is a last minute thing.... we're meeting with his parents at 7:00 PM before any other legal action may be taken by the authorities this evening."

"It's here already," Katharine said happily, "Give me an hour to read it through and I'll call you back to let you know what should be changed or added. Can I call you at this number?"

"This number or my cell... 403 555 2652, thank you Katharine," Andy replied, "You're a life saver."

"Yes thank you Katharine, you know we're doing this for Michael." I added.

"Not just Michael, it's also for all the other people he will come in contact throughout his life. Bye for now." She ended the call.

"OK bro," I said with a deep sigh, "I have to get Bryan up and we have to get the kids to school after we have a short run. We'll need some orange juice before we go."

Leaving Andy to pour the orange juice, I went upstairs and gently nudged Bryan. He moaned. "Come on big man, we have to get the kids ready for school." I said.

"Oh God Tom, my head feels like it weighs fifty pounds, my ass is numb and my legs feel like they're made of lead," he moaned. "Katharine?" he asked as I was leaving the room.

"She's looking at it as we speak." I replied.

I went into Mark and Michael's room and my heart lifted and melted. Mark was on his back, Michael was cuddled up to him with his arm resting across his chest, much the same as Bryan and I usually slept. I could feel the gentle love between them as I gazed on their innocence. I didn't want to disturb them, until I had the image etched into my weary mind. Daisy broke my reverie with a slight whine so I reached down and patted her head.

"Hey boys," I said as I hesitantly shook their shoulders. "Time to get up or you're going have to run twice as fast to catch up to me."

""Mmm... morning Tom," Michael mumbled as he lifted himself away from Mark. "Where's Bryan?"

"He's having a shower, then he's going to get breakfast ready."

"Oh boy!" Mark exclaimed through his half-closed eyes. "Breakfast, breakfast.... beautiful breakfast."

I went into Josh's room and nudged his shoulder. "Hey son, time to wake up and get ready for school." Then I reached down and patted Brutus' head.

"Morning dad," he yawned through eyes squeezed shut. "You goin' for your run with Mark and Michael?"

"And the dogs too," I said with a yawn.

"Good!" he said smiling. "It'll help to wake you up."

When the three of us drank our orange juice at the kitchen, Andy said, he'd pass on the run, he was expecting an email down in the office.

Josh was right. For the first part of our run, my head did clear, however my legs and hips weren't up to the challenge, and by the time Kevin joined us, it became a challenge that I couldn't meet. I stopped at the north gate and did a few stretches, however it was in vain as we started heading back to the main house and the boys started teasing me by literally running around me in circles. They did show some mercy by not asking to go to the main gate and in sympathy, they ended their run earlier than usual as well.

After our showers, we headed back to the kitchen where Bryan was stirring a pot. "Sorry boys," he apologized, "it just oatmeal this morning. You can have it plain or I made a separate batch with raisins. If you want, I have some blueberries or you can slice a banana to go with it."

"It's not oatmeal Bryan! It's porridge!" Michael exclaimed. "Can I have mine plain with brown sugar please?"

"Coming right up!" Bryan said.

"It's not oatmeal and it's not porridge either," Mark grumbled. "It's gruel, just like they served the orphanage kids in that movie.... uh, David Copperfield."

"I want banana with mine please," Josh said.

"I'll bet you could even throw in some peanut butter in there to go with it." Michael laughed. "Real yummy Josh."

"Not in oatmeal.... yuck!" Josh responded. "Peanut butter and banana sandwich, OK, but don't spoil the oatmeal."

I was with Michael - I like mine plain with brown sugar. Andy came in and joined us and he had his with blueberries. Bryan settled for raisins AND brown sugar.

Once we cleaned up the damages of our oatmeal breakfast, seconds for the boys, I said I wasn't going in today.

"It's OK Tom, I'm going in with Trevor or Grant." Bryan said. "I know there will be someone who will be there. If there's any questions this afternoon, I'll tell her that you and Andy are here... um... working on our wills for the ranch, etc."

I nodded my head. "She'll be delighted to hear that."

Right away, I knew he was referring to Angela and maybe Howard, although he only showed up in the afternoons because, at this stage, he still had his old job until his training department was filled with new personnel.

With all their coats on, Andy and I watched Bryan and the boys walk along the road towards the north gate together with Quince and the dogs.

It had been over an hour and neither Andy nor I had received any word from Katharine.

"It is a long document," I reassured Andy, "maybe its taking a bit longer than expected and who knows, in her line of work, there's bound to be a lot of interruptions. Let's wait 'til nine and then we'll call her back."

Without any word, we finally phoned Katherine at nine - the call went to her voice mail, so I left a message reminding her that she hadn't gotten back to us.

Another hour went by and Andy called again, but didn't leave a message. I thought maybe it was because it was noon in Toronto and she may have gone to lunch.

While we waited, Andy printed the other document on legal sized paper, then showed me how he initialed and bound the upper left hand corner with a triangular strip of folded paper covering up his initials.

"Just a touch of security," he grinned.

I called Katharine again at 11:30. This time she answered.

"Katharine here," she answered and I put it on the speaker phone.

"Katharine, it's Tom Davis. We haven't heard from you and we're wondering if you've had a chance to look at the document we sent you."

"Oh Tom I'm sorry I didn't call you back, we had a situation here, but I did review the document and I confirmed my thoughts with our legal eagle here. He said he was going to add the required changes and get it back to me. In the meantime I had to address a desperate situation, which we solved. That kind of success feels good. By the way, are you there Andy?"

"Right here Katharine," Andy replied.

"Our legal eagle and I both agree that you did a remarkable job on that document. I'm going to check with him and get the document emailed back to you within the next fifteen minutes or so."

"Good show Katharine, we can't thank you enough. You really are a lifesaver," Andy said.

"That's my job Andy. When you get the document, be sure to call me back, OK?"

"No problem Katharine. I'll let you know when I have it."

"Good, glad I could help. Bye for now."

"Bye for now Katharine," I said, "and after tonight's meeting, I'll let you know how everything turned out."

I closed the phone with a smile of relief. Andy was ecstatic.

"I gotta go and catch a bit of shut eye for an hour at least." I said. "Then I have to get dinner ready for Bryan and the boys. I think it'll be spaghetti, meatballs, and a salad. You wanna stay?" I yawned.

"No, thanks anyway Tom," he replied, "I'll stay here and wait for the document, print it, and then I have to get home, have a rest, shower, shave, and get changed. I've been in these clothes for two days and I feel grubby."

"OK bro," I yawned again, "I'm just going to lie down on the bed in there..... wake me up in an hour."

I was exhausted and I think I was unconscious before my body was horizontal. Although it was an hour later, it felt like only a minute and Andy was waking me.

"Tom wake up," he said as he shook my shoulder. "Time to get up."

"Hi Andy," I said in my sleep induced grogginess. Then it hit me. "Did it come?"

"Yes it did and I have it printing right now. I've returned Katharine's call and we'll be all set. I'll pick it up later, but right now I'm headed home.... might even get a rest myself."

"Good idea," I said as I got to my feet and stretched. As we went up the stairs, I looked at my watch. It was three o'clock. "Andy, you were supposed to wake me up in an hour."

"I know, but I got busy snoring a bit two in the chair. Time flies when your dreaming," he said.

Once Andy was out the door I headed for the kitchen. First, a fresh pot of coffee, then start preparing the meat balls and salad for tonight's dinner. With a dozen large meatballs searing in two pans on the range, I started dicing up peppers, celery, and a few other seasonings to put into the spaghetti sauce and got that simmering on the stove.

Susan called and told me that Irene was going to babysit Timothy and all the kids had to be at the Mason's house by six-thirty. All the adults had to be at her house by 6:45. We had to make sure all our ducks were in a row and everyone was in the right seat when the Burton's arrived.

Once I had the meat sauce warmed up, I poured it over the meatballs and let them simmer in a covered Dutch oven. It smelled delicious.

With that all under control I stopped for a coffee. It was fresh and it was tasty and maybe just what I'd need to keep me alert for this evening's soiree.

I'd just started cutting up the greens for the salad when the front door opened. It was the boys followed by Bryan.

"Hi Dad!" "Hi Tom!" "Hi Tom!" the boys said in unison.

"Hi guys! No extra curricular things today?" I asked.

"Not this week, everything's on for next week though. We'll let you know." Josh said as he hugged me before Mark and Michael could reach me.

"Hey guys, it's my turn!" Bryan exclaimed with a smile as he hugged me and gave me a peck. "How did your day go with the wills?" he asked with a wink.

"I gave him a broad smile and said, "Perfect! Did you have a visitor?"

"Right at one-thirty and the excuse was bought," Bryan replied. "Boys, how about you go get changed while Tom and I finish getting dinner ready?"

Once the boys were upstairs, he asked, "Did you get a rest?"

"Caught a couple of hours, how about you?" I asked.

"Actually yes.... after Angela dropped into my office. I went in with Grant this morning and he told me that after an all-nighter like we had, if I wanted a private place to crash, to stop in his office, pick up his keys and snuggle down in the back seat of the crew cab. I was out of it until he woke me up at three-thirty."

Bryan and I quickly finished getting the spaghetti ready, I finished the salad while the noodles boiled away and Bryan made some garlic toast. The boys were on us like ravenous animals by the time we served everything onto the dishes.

Once everyone had their fill - I think the boys were in actual pain from the amount they ate - we reminded the boys that they had to go over to the Masons and help babysit the boys and get their homework done or play with the dogs if they wanted.

We had the boys, Daisy and Brutus out the door by six and Bryan and I headed for the shower and a change of clothes. We decided that sweaters and slacks would be best. It didn't matter what we wore, we figured that the Burtons were going look overdressed regardless of what we wore. Andy just walked in the front door as we were putting on our coats. He was dressed to the nines in his black suit and deep blue tie, his hair perfectly parted, carrying a black attaché under his arm, looking every part, the lawyer he was soon to become.

"I gotta get downstairs and bind that other document," he said as he rushed by, "Save a seat for me."

"He looks the part and he's going to act the part." I said with a smile.

"I can't wait to see him in action," Bryan said, "I'll bet Susan put him up to this."

We got to Susan and Darren's just as Mom and the Masons arrived.

"The kids are fine and they have a guard nearby the house," Trevor said. "Everyone and their dogs are inside."

"Hurry up people," Susan called from the door. "I have to get all of us in our places."

Susan orchestrated the whole setup perfectly. Bryan and I were across the table from the three seats that would be occupied by Malcolm, Howard and Angela, Darren Andy, and Susan were to be at the head of the table nearest the door. The rest just shuffled around to a place where they felt comfortable.

Darren's phone rang. "Thank you Quince," he said and closed it. "They're here. Everyone stay seated while Susan and I greet our guests."

We heard the door open and Susan exclaimed, "Howard! Angela! Welcome. I hope you don't mind, when I told everyone we were having this meeting, they all wanted to come. We're all dying to see the design of your new house."

"Oh I'm sure you'll be impressed," Angela said as she entered the dining room with a wide smile dressed in an elegant business suit and silk blouse. "Hi everyone!" she said as she made her way to her seat to many replies and smiles from us. "Hi Angela, good to see you."

"Just wait until you see it!" We heard the voice of Howard as he walked into the room - deep grey suit and tie with a white shirt. "It's a magnificent home, you're going to love it." He exclaimed as he went to his place at the table. "Ah and here he is, ladies and gentlemen, the man of the hour. I'd like you to meet my architect for our home, Malcolm Goodstone."

Everyone stood up and introduced themselves with their proper title in the organization. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Howard's reaction when everyone one of us said Davis-Callahan. It didn't seem to bother Howard, but I did notice that Angela's eyes were darting nervously around the faces and table top.

Just then Andy came running in the room and said excitedly, "I hope I'm not too late, I've had such a busy afternoon."

"No, you're not too late, we were about to begin, Howard announced. "Malcolm Goodstone, this is Andy Davis, the son of Diane Davis." We all questioningly glanced at each other around the room as Andy went over to shake Malcolm's hand. Why was his introduction so - empty - shallow? It was a bit unnerving.

"Well Malcolm, my friend," Howard said with a big smile. "Show us what you have for us."

With that, Malcolm unrolled the drawings onto the table. Malcolm was very professional with his presentation, just as he was the night before. Right on the money when he got to the part about the third floor, the basement bowling alley, and the media room, Susan exclaimed, "A FOUR LANE BOWLING ALLEY! That's ridiculous for three people."

I leaned over the table and squinted over at that the drawings as Malcolm flipped the sheet to the elevations. "Malcolm, in the corner there, does that say Davis-Callahan and Burton Corporation?"

"Yes it does.... that-"

"This isn't a ranch house!" I exclaimed after he flipped the sheet, "It's a bloody hotel!"

"What's a structure like this worth?" Bryan exclaimed

"Well according to the agreement I have, it's ten million dollars." Malcolm stated immediately.

"Have you any agreement from any of us for such an expenditure?" I demanded.

"Yes I have it right here," Malcolm said as he pulled out an envelope from the inside pocket of his jacket.

"May I see that," Andy said.

Malcolm handed the envelope directly to Grant passing his hand in front of Angela while the others handed it down to Andy at head of the table. Andy opened the envelope and unfolded the piece of paper.

"This is not our letterhead," Andy said as he stood up, "there is no entity known as Davis-Callahan and Burton Corporation, however this is Howard Burton's signature and the statement in this letter gives Goodstone Design and Contracting Company permission to design and construct a twelve-bedroom home in an amount of not more than ten million dollars. I'd suggest that the evidence here is a blatant case of attempted fraud!"

"It's fortunate that we two GOOoons have been one step ahead of you Howard." Bryan said with a smile.

"I.... I've been set-up." Howard said quietly astonished. "You knew... you knew before I walked in here tonight."

"Yes Howard," I said. "We're all aware of what your future intent is with the Davis-Callahan Corporation and we can't abide by it."

He stood and returned the stare of everyone in the room for two seconds each.

The moment of truth came when he got to Trevor. He stopped, each of them glaring at one another. "Trevor, you stupid fucker. You could have been one of the richest men in Alberta." He continued around the table until he got to me. "You are going down boy and I know just how to do it." He broke our stare and looked back at each of the others. 'YOU BASTARDS! YOU F-U-C-K-I-N-G BASTARDS," He shouted as he grabbed Angela's hand. "Come on Angel, we're gettin' outta here!"

"Not so fast Mister Burton," Darren said standing beside Andy, "there's the little matter of fraud to be addressed. Andy, would you explain the facts to our guests."

"Yes. Mr. and Mrs. Burton, with the evidence we have in front of us, the charge would be attempted fraud in the amount of ten million dollars. The sentence in most courts would be ten years in prison."

"THAT'S BULLSHIT, YOU STUPID PUNK," Howard shouted as he took a step towards Andy. Immediately Grant was on his feet, his hand behind him, ready to draw a weapon from under his sweater.

"Watch it Mr. Burton," Darren said, "Mr. Brown doesn't take too kindly to anyone threatening a member of this family or the corporation of Davis-Callahan. Andy, would you continue please."

"Yes," Andy said as he unzipped his attaché and removed the documents we'd spent almost 24 hours creating. "Mr. and Mrs. Burton, I have two documents that both of you are required to sign or you will be arrested and charged with intent to defraud before you leave this house. The first is this affidavit that relinquishes all your interests and claims in Davis-Callahan Incorporated, Davis-Callahan Corporation, Serenity Ranch Corporation, and other related properties that may be owned by these entities now or in the future." Andy paused for a moment awaiting a reaction, but there was only enraged stare from Howard Burton. "The second document is a custody agreement in which you both agree to relinquish all parental rights to the further upbringing of Michael Lawrence Burton to one Thomas Ryan Davis."

"Now I KNOW THAT'S BULLSHIT!" Burton shouted. "No court in the world would ever allow a child to be taken from his parents."

"Yes they would Mr. Burton, especially in the case of abuse." Andy interjected. "You have failed to provide a balanced direction to Michael's emotional development, thereby threatening his future to become a balanced member of society. The charge of this type of abuse may carry a sentence of up to two years. You see Mr. and Mrs. Burton, while Michael has resided here at the Serenity Ranch, Michael has been under the scrutiny of a registered child psychologist, and according to that child psychologist's report, it would be detrimental to Michael's development to remove him from the influence of his present home environment here at Serenity. I have the report right here, would you like to read it?" Andy reached into his attaché and started pulling out a third document.

I thought Andy was trying to con the con artist. He didn't tell us anything about a psychologist. Bryan and I looked at each other - neither of us were aware of Michael having been to a psychologist. We were both puzzled.

"I don't have to read any document, he's my son." Angela said.

"That is true," Darren said, "but the charge of abuse will stick and if you don't sign the agreement, Michael will become a ward of the court and because of the psychologist's report, he will end up being placed here at the ranch anyway while you serve out your prison term. One moment please," Darren took out his cell phone and placed it on the table with the speaker on. "Quince are you there?"

"Yes Mr. Higgins," Quince replied.

"Stay on the line." He looked directly at Howard Burton. "The RCMP can be here in ten minutes. What's it going to be Burton.... your signatures or twelve years in a federal penitentiary? The choices are yours."

The room was silent for a moment while Burton stared at the papers in front of Andy, his face boiling at his choices. Anyone could have cut the tension in the room with a knife. Again he grabbed Angela's hand and strutted over to where Andy stood. "Gimme the pen," he growled through gritted teeth. Andy carefully pointed to the four lines where Howard had to sign. He passed the pen to Angela and again, Andy pointed to each of the lines where she also had to sign.

Angela looked at her husband, confused and stunned. "Howard? What about.... you know...?" She pleaded quietly.

"Sign it!" Howard said, gritting his teeth. "We ain't gonna go to jail for that kid."

Immediately after Angela had signed the documents, Darren picked up his phone. "Come Susan, we have to escort our guests to the door."

As they left the dining room, all of us followed as we watched them put on their winter coats. "You're all going down," Howard said angrily, "I'm too smart to fall for this shit."

Darren held the front door as they exited and the rest of us filed onto the verandah to watch them leave.


"SHUT UP CUNT!" Howard shouted back as they both got inside the car.

All of us were shocked. "Oh my God." "Holy shit." "I can't believe it!" "They're absolutely ruthless!" "They would have sold their own child!" The comments buzzed all around the verandah as Howard gunned the engine of the car, popped it into gear, and squealed the tires backing out of the driveway.

Darren lifted his phone. "Quince, open the main gate now! The Burton's are leaving the property and they are never to be allowed on it again for any reason."

The car again squealed the tires as it took off for the main gate.

As all of us stood there stunned by what we had just witnessed, the voice from Darren's phone said, "They've left the property. Darren, she was turned sideways in her seat yelling in his face.... I don't think they had their seatbelts on. They were fish-tailing pretty bad when they hit the highway. Shall I call the locals to be on the lookout?"

"No Quince, they've suffered enough for one night." Darren replied, "Close the gate for now. Mr. Goodstone will be leaving after awhile. Keep the gate on manual control until further notice."

"Yes sir." Darren closed his phone.

"OK folks, we've done our duty. Let's get inside where it's warmer." Darren said. "Oh damn!" he exclaimed aloud as he opened his phone and dialed. "Harold, it's Darren Higgins.... I need an urgent favour and it has to be right now! We need you to go to the office building and remove Angela and Howard Burton's card access to the building and underground parking from the readers..... yes Harold, it's urgent..... Thank you Harold." He closed his phone again.

"Well done Darren," Grant said.

"You were armed tonight, weren't you?" Bryan asked.

"Yeah," Grant replied, "in spite of any hope I had.... we had to be prepared for any eventuality."

As we we re-entered the dining room, I said, "Andy, Michael's never been to a child psychologist."

"I didn't say he had. I said he was under the scrutiny of a psychologist." Andy replied with a smile.

"Well you really bluffed him with that psychologist's report. You're a genius." Bryan added.

"Yes and a hell of a good lawyer even if you are just a law student." I said.

"The report wasn't a bluff guys," Andy chuckled as he reached into his attaché. "I've got it right here. I was waiting for Katharine's email in front of your computer and I guess I dozed off sitting in the chair. When I jolted awake, it was sitting on top of the keyboard. You want to read it?"

I took the report from Andy and stood with Bryan looking over my shoulder. The beginning was straight forward: 'Psychological Assessment of Michael Lawrence Burton. This assessment covers a period from December 1, 2001 to January 13, 2002. During this period I have witnessed a remarkable change in Michael's attitude since he has lived at Serenity under the care and guidance of Tom Davis and Bryan Callahan. When questioned about what he liked about his life at his present home, he replied that it was a warm and loving place to be. He admitted that he'd never experienced that at his parental home. It is based on that and other observations, that I have recorded during the above-noted period, (refer to the daily diary attached) that I have concluded that Michael has suffered greatly and unknowingly from emotional neglect at the home of his parents. If a resolution of the parent's behavior is not forthcoming, it is my recommendation to prevent further emotional damage to Michael's psyche that custody of Michael Lawrence Burton be permanently assigned to Tom Davis and/or Bryan Callahan. Precedence for such action can be found in the following cases where parental control of a subject was taken from the parents:'

Below that was a three-page list of cases and related descriptions of emotional neglect and abuse. At the bottom of the list it was signed,


Dr. Anne M. Davis Ph.D., C.Psych.'

"Anne!" I exclaimed. As I ruffled through the remaining twenty or so typed pages of Anne's diary on Michael. I was speechless.

She smiled and winked. "You guys weren't the only ones that were burning the midnight oil last night."

"I didn't know you were a Doctor of Child Psychology!" Bryan exclaimed.

"Well I had to have something to do while I was chasing James through university," Anne said laughing with the rest of us.

"We have one more piece of legal business before we wrap it up," Andy said. "First, Tom, we need for you to also sign this custody agreement as well. Malcolm, we can't thank you enough for the part you played in this terrible fiasco. Without you it wouldn't have been possible. On behalf of the family and our corporations, I have to ask if you would witness the signatures on these two documents that the Burtons signed."

Malcolm's eyes quickly scanned the faces in the room with a broad smile. "It would be my pleasure."

"Oh and I have your cheque right here," Mom added as he took the pen and witnessed the documents. I almost had a tear in my eye when I signed the custody agreement.

Once Malcolm had added his signature to all the documents, everyone had shook hands with Malcolm - the ladies all gave him a hug - and we said our goodnights.

I looked around at my family with a bit of an emotional smile. "All of us came together in the last twenty-four hours and we turned what could have been a catastrophe into a miracle. Susan, Darren, Anne, Andy especially..... but all of you worked together and saved our family. I think we've proved how strong we are as a unit."

"I think all of us are proud for what happened here tonight," Susan began. "Unfortunately we lost two friends. Again, a reminder that what happened or was said in this room tonight, stays in this room. I want to reiterate what I said to Tom last night while we poured over that custody agreement.... we're all here for Michael. When it comes time for Tom and Bryan to explain to Michael about his parents, I said we should all, children included, be there to support both Tom and Bryan and of course Michael."

"That will be a milestone in Michael's further development," Anne said, "I'll keep an ear open for any clue as to when the time may be right for him to handle the news."

With overwhelming relief, I looked at Bryan's smiling face and hugged him. "Let's go get our boys."

As we went out the front door, Quince was there waiting, almost as if he was on guard. We shook his hand and thanked him for going above and beyond the call of duty.

"No problem, Tom, all in a day's work." He said smiling as he accompanied all of us to Trevor and Debbie's house. "The four of us are going to stay here on duty for the next forty-eight hours at least just to make sure that Burton doesn't come back with a vengeance. I have to carry on and make sure everyone gets home safe and sound. Stay here at the Masons until I get back and I'll escort you home."

While James carried on to Hamish and Irene's to pick up Timmy, Andy and Mom stopped. Andy said he'd be back tomorrow night and drop off the documents for us to keep in safe keeping in our office.

When we walked into Trevor and Debbie's house, the kids were all lazing around in front of the TV enjoying a cartoon video. Grant and Ethel were the first to leave with Kevin on their own because as Grant put it - he had confidence in his back-up - he tapped the back of his sweater. The kids quit watching the cartoon as Anne pulled their coats out of the closet and they got dressed for the cold outdoors.

As soon as Quince knocked on the door, we were ready to head out. Arnold, who had been on guard at the house throughout the evening, accompanied Anne and the twins to their house.

As soon as we were off the Mason's verandah, Michael gravitated to my side, Bryan and I put an arm around him, Josh stood at my other side and we put our arms around our waists as Bryan did with Mark at his side. Under the full moon, the five of us were together, walking in step, except we teased Bryan because he hadn't mastered the technique. The boys were happy and laughing as we followed Quince to our home.

The boys soon understood how tired Bryan and I were so they didn't hesitate to go to bed early and although they didn't know why, they sensed that the drama of the last two days was over. Even Josh said that the terrible feeling he had last night was gone.

As we undressed for bed, Bryan said, "With a bit of luck, we won't have any nightmares about what had happened during the last two days if we consider the happiness we'll have sharing our future with Michael, Josh and Mark."

I didn't have any nightmares that night - only a happy peace and vague images of my dad's smiling face.

The comfort I felt came to a quick end when I was jolted into reality by the ringing of my cell phone. It was 5 AM. The caller ID said it was Darren. I feared the worst for a call to come at this time of the morning.

"Darren, what's wrong?" My concern was obvious.

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