"How long have Benny and his foster family been missing?" I asked Darcie.
"That's hard to say. It seems that the caseworker has been submitting regular reports on Benny for the last six or so months. However, when the supervisor did a spot check on her cases he found that she had not been visiting her cases and had been fabricating the reports. They have been able to determine that the caseworker had not seen Benny for at least four months. So, sometime in the last four months the family has moved," Darcie concluded.
"What are they going to do to find the family?"
"I hate to say this but my guess is they will check with the post office to see if a change of address has been submitted. If the family didn't submit one, they will probably wait to see if they contact CPS. If that doesn't happen then they will just hold the file open and probably forget it."
"Isn't there any way that we can force them to put forth more effort to find Benny?" I asked.
"Not really. If you try to interfere they will stonewall and you will get nowhere. However, there are a couple of things that you could try. You could contact the "Houston Chronicle" and see if they are interested in publishing a story about a missing boy. They may or may not be interested. Another avenue is to see if you can get Marvin Zindler interested. He was made famous in that play and movie "The Greatest Little Whorehouse in Texas." He works for a TV station there in Houston and is famous or infamous for getting results and embarrassing officials."
"What happened to Benny's caseworker?"
"According to Cindi, the only thing that happened was the caseworker got a verbal reprimand. The really irritating thing is that this is the third time she has been reprimanded for the same type of thing."
"That's unbelievable! How could they overlook such incompetence?" I asked.
"Well, again according to Cindi, the woman's husband is a big shot in the Harris County Democratic Party and also has a lot of influence in Austin. There is talk that he will either run for mayor or county commissioner. Nobody wants to get on his bad side even though his wife is as Cindi said ‘a lazy bitch who should have been fired years ago'."
I gathered more information from Darcie about Benny's caseworker and also the number of her friend Cindi in case I wanted even more information.
After I hung up the phone I went to say goodbye to the boys before I left for the hospital. Becky Sue had arrived while I was on the phone. She was talking to the boys when I entered the kitchen. She was telling them that she would be giving them another swimming lesson after their breakfasts had settled. That reminded me that I had been very negligent in doing my laps in the pool since Joel was hospitalized.
It was after ten when I got to the hospital. I met Dr. Kerner in the hall as I got off the elevator. He updated me on Joel's condition indicating that he seemed to be recovering nicely from the reaction.
"Is it okay to take him outside for a while this afternoon?" I asked before we parted.
"I think that would be okay for a little while. Just make sure that he doesn't get too tired, but a half an hour or so would probably do him good," Kerner replied.
I thanked him and then made my way to Joel's room. He was sitting on the side of his bed facing Tony. They were having an animated conversation about their schools.
"Hi, dad," Joel said when he saw me standing there. "Tony was telling me about one of his funny teachers. He wears real baggy pants with suspenders and wide ties like a clown and he wears black and white tennis shoes."
"That is a little strange," I said giving Joel a hug and kiss on the forehead. "Dr. Kerner said that you could go outside this afternoon for a while. Would you like that?"
"Yeah. Can Tony go too?"
"If his mom says it is all right, he can," I said looking over to Karen.
"Dr. Kerner said he needed to get out of bed once in a while so I think that would be fine. But, I need to get something to cover his head," Karen said.
I thought that was strange until I looked closer at Tony. His hair was definitely falling out now. "Oh, I see. I guess I need to think about that for Joel, too."
"Dr. Kerner said that all my hair will fall out in the next couple of days," Tony added through his surgical mask and then with a giggle, "At least I won't have to get a haircut."
After thing settled down, Joel asked if I would read some more of the Sherlock Holmes book. He said it was more fun when I read it.
I opened the book to the place where Joel had marked it. We had nearly finished the book. Only three chapters remained to be read.
THE COUNTRY OF THE SAINTS
THE AVENGING ANGELS
ALL night their course lay through intricate defiles and over irregular and rock-strewn paths. More than once they lost their way, but Hope's intimate knowledge of the mountains enabled them to regain the track once more. When morning broke, a scene of marvellous though savage beauty lay before them. In every direction the great snow-capped peaks hemmed them in, peeping over each other's shoulders to the far horizon. So steep were the rocky banks on either side of them that the larch and the pine seemed to be suspended over their heads, and to need only a gust of wind to come hurtling down upon them. Nor was the fear entirely an illusion, for the barren valley was thickly strewn with trees and boulders which had fallen in a similar manner. Even as they passed, a great rock came thundering down with a hoarse rattle which woke the echoes in the silent gorges, and startled the weary horses into a gallop.
(BAKER STREET CONNECTION, A STUDY IN SCARLET Part 2 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1887)
I read the rest of the book before an orderly brought the boys their lunch. My voice had just about given out as I read the last few lines. Joel asked me what the last couple of lines meant but I had to tell him that I didn't know Latin so I couldn't translate it for him.
"Will you bring another book?" he asked.
"Sure, what do you want me to bring? I only brought a few books with us," I said.
"I don't care. I like to read everything."
"Okay, I'll bring a book and your brothers when I come back about two o'clock. You eat your lunch and I'll see you then." I gave him a hug and said goodbye to Karen and Tony before leaving.
On the way to the van I called Eric's parents and told them that I would be out to pick up Samson in a little while. I told Ethel that if they didn't mind that I would take JR and Bran to visit Joel saying that I had to bring Samson back anyway. She hesitated for a moment before agreeing. She said that it would give her time to go to the grocery store. She had forgotten how much two young boys could eat.
I drove directly from the hospital to the Levin's house. I should have known that it would take me a while to get across town during the noon traffic rush. I did finally make it. Bran and JR were ready as was Samson. He nearly jerked the leash out of JR's hands when he saw the van drive up. I went inside and introduced myself to Eric's parents. They said they had heard all about me from both Darcie and Eric. I was impressed with the way they were already interacting with Bran. They treated him the same way that they treated their own grandson.
After we exchanged pleasantries, I loaded the boys and Samson into the van and headed back to the apartment. Bran sat in the front passenger seat while JR and Samson sat in the seats behind us. I should say that JR sat in the seat. Samson was so worked up that it was all that JR could do to restrain him. I'm sure he could pick up the scent of the boys in the van.
Samson went wild when he saw his boys waiting for him at the apartment. After giving each one of them an enthusiastic welcome he began looking around, searching for something. He would keep coming back to the boys and going from one to the next and then he would go searching again.
I patted him on the head and said, "Don't worry boy, you'll get to see Joel soon."
At hearing Joel's name he gave a loud bark.
"I think we had better go before we get kicked out of the apartment for having a dog," I smirked.
I received no resistance from the boys. They were out of the apartment almost before I could grab another book to take to Joel. I had given Becky Sue the afternoon off while I took the boys to the hospital. She left the same time that we did but her destination was the Houston Museum of Fine Arts which was only four blocks away. I offered to drop her off in the van but she elected to walk.
When we arrived at the hospital, I escorted all six of the boys along with Samson and Hildy to the garden area outside the hospital building. I was not surprised when TJ insisted on going with me to get Joel.
Joel was all ready sitting in a wheelchair when we got to his room. TJ immediately hopped up on his lap and hugged his brother tightly around the neck. I place the book on the side table before I leaned over and gave Joel a kiss on the top of his head.
When I looked over, Tony was also in his wheelchair ready to go out as well. I noticed that Karen had gotten him an Astro's baseball cap to cover his now balding head.
"Well if you guys are ready to go, the rest of the gang is waiting for us outside," I said grabbing onto the handles of Joel's wheelchair and starting out the door with TJ still sitting on Joel's lap.
Karen and Tony followed us as we headed for the elevator.
"Nice hat there, Tony. Did your mom get that for you?" I asked while we waited for the elevator to arrive on our floor.
"Yeah, isn't it neat?" he replied.
"Can I get one too, dad?" Joel asked.
"I don't know why not. I'll bet your brothers would like one too. How about it TJ?"
"If Joel gets one, I want one," TJ answered.
"Five Astro ball caps coming up."
I hadn't told Joel that we planned to bring Samson to see him. I'm not even sure if he knew that Samson was in town. However, when we got out in the garden where I had left everyone he soon learned of his presence. Samson jerked the leash out of Lenny's hand and raced the twenty or so yards between him and Joel's wheelchair. He leaped the last couple of yards and landed in their laps. He was immediately hugged by both of them and they received a happy tongue licking.
"Oh Samson, I missed you so much. It's so good to see you," Joel said as he held Samson's face and looked him straight in the eyes. "Tony..., Tony come here. This is my dog Samson."
Karen wheeled Tony up beside Joel's chair so that he could pet Samson. Samson lifted his paw as if to shake hands with him.
"Why are you wearing a mask?" TJ asked Tony.
By this time all the rest of the family had gathered around to hear Tony explain why he had to wear a surgical mask.
"Son," I said to Joel, "this young man is Bran LaBeau. He is staying with JR's grandparents for a while."
Joel and Bran seemed to hit it off right away and were talking like old friends within a few minutes. Tony joined in and before long all of them were having a great time. However, it didn't take too long before it became apparent that Tony was getting tired. Karen noticed it and although Tony protested mildly she began wheeling him back toward the hospital.
"Samson, I love you boy but you are awful hot on my lap," Joel said as he carefully urged Sampson off his lap. Although he was off Joel's lap he didn't move far away. He was always within reach of Joel's petting hand.
I let the boys and Samson enjoy themselves while Hildy and I chatted. While we were sitting on a bench under a live oak tree my cell phone rang. When I answered, it was my secretary Carol. She asked if it would be possible for me to come to the office tomorrow to meet with William Weller. It seemed that he was going to be in town on Tuesday and wanted to meet with the major players in my organization to get a progress update on the sale from our side and provide one from their side. I told her to go ahead and set up the meeting that I would be in the office by nine.
After about an hour I could tell that Joel was starting to get fatigued so I told the boys to say their goodbyes to their brother. I asked Hildy to remain with the troops while I took Joel back to his room. The goodbye between Joel and Samson was emotional. He had remained at Joel's side all the time and didn't want Joel to leave but after a hug and some ear scratching he consented to stay behind with the rest of the boys. That is except for TJ who resumed his position on Joel's lap for the trip back to the room.
When we got there I told Joel that I had to go back to the office tomorrow and wouldn't be able to visit him until in the evening. I planned to fly back to San Antonio tonight and then take the afternoon plane back to Houston.
"That's okay dad. I know you gotta work sometime."
"You know something?"
"You are one great kid," I told him. "I love you and your brothers so much it makes me wonder what I ever did to deserve you guys."
"I know. It's ‘cause you got a good heart," Joel said holding his arms out for a hug. It ended in a three way with TJ joining in.
"Okay TJ, it's time for us to go and let your brother rest. We'll come back to see him tomorrow evening when I get back in town."
We just started out of the room after saying goodbye to Tony and Karen when Dr. Barrow came in.
"Mr. Johnson, I'm glad that I caught you. We are going to start a new series of chemotherapy treatments for Joel tomorrow. This will be a series of oral and intravenous medications that will go on for two days. During that time we would recommend that he have a minimum of visitors. The medications can cause a number of side effects. None of which is life threatening but can make him nauseous and sometimes causes diarrhea. All in all it is one of the most unpleasant of the treatments that he will undergo."
"Should I be here with him? I'm supposed to have an important meeting in San Antonio tomorrow morning, but if necessary I will cancel it."
"I don't think that will be necessary," Barrow said.
"Crane," Karen interrupted, "I'll be here in case he needs someone. I went through this with Tony and know sort of what to expect."
"Oh thanks, Karen," I said. "That would be great. Thank you." I realized how fortunate we were that I allowed Dr. Kerner to convince me to put Joel in a semi-private room. Meeting Karen, Bill and Tony was a blessing in this unfortunate situation.
We stayed a few more minutes before TJ and I left to get the other boys and Hildy. I had nearly forgotten that we had to drive all the way across town to drop off JR and Bran. I made a quick call to the Levin's to see if they were home. I didn't want to get there and them not be there. Thankfully they were home so we took off for Hedwig Village, the six boys, Hildy and I and one dog in a van.
Samson was not happy when we let him out of the van and the boys didn't get out with him. Bran and JR talked to him and petted him and finally he calmed down but barked constantly as long as we could see him as we left in the van.
Something had been nagging at the back of my mind since I talked to Darcie this morning. The idea of contacting the newspaper or this Marvin Zindler character had some appeal but it could take too long before they could develop the story and get it on the air or in print. I wanted Benny to be found now. Then I wanted CPS to get their noses rubbed in the mess. I decided to call Collin Cupp with Independent Investigators. He was the man that I used to dig up the dirt on the Reverend Fullwell.
When we got home Hildy took the boys into the kitchen to get them a snack to tide them over until supper while I went to call Collin. I was lucky. He was in the office when I called. I explained to him what I wanted done and gave him Darcie's friend Cindi's information assuring him that she would cooperate with the investigation. When he asked what priority I wanted them to place on it I answered that I wanted the boy found as quickly as possible. They were to spare no resources to find him. He was to call me day or night when they located Benny.
Next I called Continental Airline to see if I could get a flight to San Antonio this evening. They had one leaving Houston Intercontinental at 7:48 so I booked a seat on it and a return flight at 3:31 tomorrow afternoon. Then I went to tell the boys I would be leaving but would be back tomorrow.
Becky Sue had returned while I was on the phone and had joined the boys in enjoying ice cream sundaes. She was telling the boys about all the great art work that she had seen today at the museum. The boys were more interested in the ice cream but at least they didn't interrupt her.
I asked Hildy if she would mind staying with the boys in the apartment again tonight. She agreed as I knew she would.
"Hildy, I don't know what I would do without you. You bring sanity to this asylum. I thank you," I said giving her a hug before heading for the bedroom to pack my shaving kit and personal items that I would need. I also called a taxi to pick me up in twenty minutes.
The house seemed like a morgue when I got there. I turned on the TV just to have some noise. It was always so full of life when the boys were here. It was all I could do to make myself stay. I hadn't eaten before I left Houston and the flight was so short that no meal was served. I didn't have the forethought to stop on the way home to get something to eat so I was left to scrounge around to find something to eat. There was nothing fresh but I was able to find a frozen pizza which would have to do. I preheated the oven while I changed into my swim trunks. The pizza would take 55 minutes to bake since it was one of those deep dish ones. That would give me time to get in some laps in the pool that I had been neglecting.
After about twenty minutes in the pool I was hurting. How I wished that everything was back to the way it was before Joel's illness. I would be getting up in the mornings and doing my laps with Chris joining me on occasion. But it was not to be. The emotions that I had been suppressing since Joel's leukemia was diagnosed came flooding to the surface. I sat on the side of the pool and just sobbed uncontrollably. The only thing that snapped me out of my depression was the buzzer of the timer telling me that my pizza should be done.
Mechanically I got up and went into the house. I was a bit ashamed that I allowed myself to give in to the depression that I felt. I was just glad that the boys were not here to witness it. I ate the pizza barely tasting or enjoying it. I ate because I needed food. As soon as I had my fill I cleaned up my mess and went directly to bed.
I got to the office just before nine Tuesday morning. The first thing I did after greeting Carol and getting a cup of coffee was to call Joel. The phone rang several times and I was getting worried but then Joel answered it.
"Hi, son, it's dad."
"How are you feeling?"
"Oh, pretty good. They gave me the pills a few minutes ago. There was four of them and they were big and I couldn't chew them. I had to swallow them. I drank a whole glass of water to get ‘em down."
"Have they started the IV yet?"
"No, not yet, Dr. Kerner said they would be back in a while for it."
"Did they give you anything to calm your stomach?"
"Yeah, I forgot. They gave me a cup full of this thick white stuff that tasted like peppermint chalk. It made my mouth taste nasty."
"Okay son, dad's got to go. I love you and I'll see you tonight. Bye!"
"Bye dad, I love you too."
The meeting with Weller was schedule for ten o'clock. I had used the time between when I got off the phone with Joel and the meeting to catch up on the mountain of paper work on my desk. I had gotten through maybe two-thirds of it when Carol told me that everyone was assembled in the conference room.
To say that the meeting was boring would be an understatement. Foster was first to give a complete status update on the ten current projects we had on the table. He was followed by Gerald and then Carlos from our side. Weller made a few remarks before he turned it over to his financial person and then to his legal eagle. There was nothing discussed in the meeting that I had not already heard and I had been out of the office for some days now. I sometime think that businesses have meeting just to have meetings. I guess that is why I'm such a fan of the "Dilbert" cartoons. Scott Adams has a way of capturing the idiosyncrasies and idiocies of the business world.
The meeting droned on and on. It was approaching two o'clock when I announced that I had a plane to catch so that I could get to the hospital to see my son. The meeting broke up within minutes. I think that all it needed was an excuse to end.
I grabbed up my things, jumped into the BMW and sped off to the airport. One advantage of flying first class is that the wait for check-in is minimal. I got to the gate with about fifteen minutes to spare before takeoff. First class had already loaded but I was allowed to board immediately.
I was just getting settled when my cell phone rang. They had not told us to turn off all electronic equipment yet. I didn't know who to expect on the phone so I answered it with a great deal of apprehension hoping it was not the hospital.
"Mr. Johnson, it's Collin Cupp. I have some news for you. We have located Benny Clausen."
"Mr. Cupp that is fantastic news! Where is he?"
"I'm sorry to say he is in Piedras Negras, Mexico."
"How in the world did you find him so quickly if they took him out of the country?"
"It's a long story but the short version is that once we had talked to that Cindi you referred us to everything dropped into place. We were conducting another investigation into a couple who were scamming old people out of money and it turned out that Benny's foster parents were that couple. They were using him as bait for the scam. That's not important, but what is important is that there is evidence of them abusing him."
"How do we get him back into the US?"
"The legal route could take months if not years to work through both the American and Mexican courts. But there are other ways..."
"Look, I'm on a plane that is about to take off for Houston. I'll give you a call in about an hour and a half and we can discuss the other ways. The stewardess is giving me nasty looks to shut off my phone. Bye."