"What do you mean, the judge took him away?" I reacted.
"She said it wasn't right that a black be fostered by a white man, especially a single white man. She ignored the recommendations of both the CPS caseworker and Bran's Guardian ad Litem. CPS had requested that Bran's father's parental rights be terminated and that they be given Permanent Managing Conservatorship."
"What did Bran's attorney say? Wasn't he represented by Karen Lin?" I asked, not believing what Eric had just told me.
"She wasn't there. She didn't show up," Eric said angrily. "I've tried to call her, but I can't reach her. I don't know what happened."
"What did the judge say about Bran's education? Didn't she realize that his school is one of the finest private schools in the state? I can't believe that a judge would be that stupid. Is Bran going to be able to come back here to get his things?"
"Yes, but his caseworker has to bring him."
"Where did the judge put him? Who's he going to live with?" I asked.
"She ordered him to be placed in a foster home in the Houston area," Eric said.
"Let me see what I can do. I'll call Benjamin to see if he knows why Karen didn't show up. She did know about the rescheduled hearing, didn't she?"
"Yes, I talked to her as soon as I knew the hearing had been rescheduled."
"Look, I'll call you back as soon as I talk to Benjamin. I'll call your cell phone."
As soon as I hung up the phone, I dialed Benjamin Cross's office in Austin. The receptionist informed me that he wasn't in the office. I heard her gasp when I asked if Karen Lin was there.
"I'm sorry, sir. Karen Lin was in an accident this morning," the receptionist said.
"Is she all right?"
"No, sir, she was killed."
"Oh, dear, I'm so sorry. I was impressed with the way she helped us. How did it happen?"
"She was on her way to Houston early this morning when a drunk driver crossed into her lane and hit her head-on. It was just outside Brenham. They flew her by Life-Flight helicopter to Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, but she died in the emergency room. Even the famous Dr. Red Duke couldn't save her."
"Please give my sympathy to her husband. And if you would, have Mr. Cross call me as soon as he can," I said, before I hung up the phone.
I called Eric on his cell phone and explained what had happened. I told him I hadn't been able to talk to Benjamin as yet, but had left a message for him to call me.
The rest of the afternoon was rather depressing. I was about ready to leave the office for the day when Benjamin Cross returned my call. I explained what had happened to Bran and then expressed my sympathy to him for the loss of his colleague.
"She was a very bright young lawyer and had a bright future in family law. I will miss her as will the rest of the office. Now, let's see what we can do with Bran LaBeau's situation. It's probably too late to get anything accomplished today," Benjamin said. "I'll look into it personally to see what our options are. Unfortunately, I don't think we can call on Justice Yates for relief this time. She doesn't handle appellate cases for the Houston district. Tell Eric that, offhand, I believe we have reason to have the order overturned if the judge actually used race as the determining factor in Bran's placement decision. I'll be in contact with him as soon as I have completed my research."
"Thanks, Benjamin. I'll have my fingers crossed. Bran deserves the chance at the education he's been receiving and the loving family he has now. Let me know if there is anything I can do," I said, before we hung up.
I had to push the speed limits to get home in time to meet the boys' school van. I did make it in time to let the dogs out of their run. They immediately took off for the gate to await their boys. I could tell that the van was getting close by the way the dogs started jumping around and whining at the gate. Less than a minute later the van came around the curve in the road. I waited until the van came to a complete stop before I activated the gate opener. The last thing I wanted today was to have one of them run over by the van.
"Is my dad here yet?" JR asked as he hopped out of the van's door.
"Not yet," I answered. "He should be here in about 45 minutes to an hour." I didn't think it was appropriate to tell him about Bran at this point. The dogs got their hugs before I got mine.
It was nearly an hour before I saw Eric's car drive up the lane. I went outside to meet him.
"Oh my God, Crane. What am I going to tell JR?" Eric whimpered. He put his arms around me and laid his head on my shoulder. I could tell he was on the verge of collapse. I returned his hug and held him for several minutes before he recovered.
"Are you okay now?" I asked. Getting a nod, I continued, "Let's go in the house. I think the boys need to know what is going on, particularly since Bran isn't with you."
JR took the news very badly. He started to cry and crawled into his dad's lap. "It's not fair. I want Bran to come back. He's my brother, I love him."
"I know, son. We all love Bran," Eric said, trying to soothe JR. "Mr. Cross is going to see if he can do something to get Bran to live with us again. I think we had better go home and tell grandpa."
All the time that Eric was explaining to the boys about Bran, Hildy was standing behind the boys. I could see her face take on a look I had seen very few times and one that I didn't want to see directed at me. As Eric and JR stood up she asked in a voice that would freeze an active volcano, "What was the judge's name?"
"Judge Shirley Obamal." Eric said.
"Thank you," Hildy said and headed for the kitchen.
After Eric and JR drove away, I sought out Hildy. "Why did you want to know the judge's name?"
"Well..." she hesitated. "I thought I might call my niece, Celia, to find out what she knew about the judge."
"Isn't Celia the one who writes that society column in the paper in Houston?"
"Yes," Hildy said with an evil gleam in her eyes. "She owes me a favor and I think it is time to call it in."
Supper was rather a somber affair, not the boisterous bantering that usually went on. Later when Joel brought his homework to have me check it, he asked, "Why would that judge take Bran away?"
"Joel, I don't know for sure. What I think happened is that the judge thought it would be better for Bran to be with a black foster family?"
"Why? Didn't she know that Bran was happy? Didn't she know that he loved all of us?"
"Son, sometimes people do things that are hard to explain rationally. To some people, the color of a person's skin can influence how they treat that person. It seems that the judge thinks that mixing of races is a bad idea. Maybe she thought Bran would lose his 'ethnic identity' by living with a white family. I think she's wrong, but I'm not a judge."
"I hope Mr. Cross can help Bran," Joel said. "I'll miss him and so will a lot of kids at school."
"I know Mr. Cross will do his best," I said. "He's a very smart lawyer."
JR rode home with the boys from school every evening and Eric picked him up on his way home. With Ricky brightening our lives on Wednesday and Friday, things seemed to get back to normal. Ricky's new leg brought out the sweet devil in him. He loved to play tag, a game that Joel had taught him. He never tired of playing it. He would come up behind one of the boys or one of the adults, tag them and then run away as fast as he could, giggling all the time.
Hildy loved the little scamp. In the afternoon, when it was time for Ricky's nap, Hildy would hold him on her lap and read a story to him until he went to sleep. Other times she would sing softly to him with her beautiful voice. I think those were the only times that he was not in motion.
Friday morning, I got a call from Eric. He said that Cross had succeeded in getting a re-hearing for Bran on Monday in front of another family court judge. He also told me that Bran's caseworker was scheduled to bring Bran from Houston this afternoon to pick up his personal belongings. I was surprised, but Eric said that the caseworker had no choice. She was still operating under Judge Obamal's orders to remove Bran's things.
I asked what time he was expecting Bran and his caseworker. Eric said that they should be at his house around one o'clock. He was going to pick up JR from school at noon so that he would have a chance to see Bran at least one more time. I thought that was a good idea and decided to pick up my five so they would have the same chance.
When Eric and I finished talking, I called the school to tell them that I would be picking up my sons around noon. I then called Hildy and told her what I was going to do so that she would know we would be home early. When I told her what was going on, she insisted that she was going to be there also to see Bran and that she was going to bring Ricky along.
It was nearly 1:30 by the time that Bran and his caseworker arrived. Bran was immediately surrounded by seven boys and three adults all asking him how he was and telling him how much we all missed him. After I had greeted him I went to talk to his caseworker.
The caseworker was new. I had never met her before. I introduced myself and found out her name was Georgina Clarey. She was a clearly over weight, grandmotherly type. I immediately liked her. She apologized for what she had to do, but it was out of her hands. I asked her where Bran was being taken.
"For the moment, he's being housed in a shelter on the north side of Houston," Georgina said. "It's very hard to place a 16 year-old of any race in a foster home. That's why we were so happy that Mr. Levin was providing such a good home for him. Since the judge has ordered that he be placed with a black family, it's going to be even tougher to find him a home. I hope that her ruling is overturned Monday."
"How has Bran been taking his separation from Eric and JR?" I asked.
"Not very well, I just hope and pray that he doesn't try to run away from the shelter. I've been telling him to stick it out until Monday when we find out what happens with the new judge. I think I have him convinced to give the system another chance," Georgina said. "He's a good boy. I'd hate to see him get sent to a juvenile facility for running away from the shelter."
Bran decided that he was only going to take a few of his clothes back to Houston, telling JR he would be coming back next Monday. I don't think JR entirely believed him because he clung to Bran all the time Bran was packing his clothes.
When Georgina said it was time to leave, JR almost refused to let go of Bran. Finally, Eric was able to pry him loose. Everyone gave Bran a hug. Hildy planted a big kiss on his cheek and told him she would see him Monday. Bran waved to us until the car was out of sight. It was a quiet ride back to our place.
The boys went to their rooms to change out of their school clothes and I went into my study to call the office. As I sat down at my desk, I noticed a fax had arrived. It was addressed to Hildy. I picked it up and began to chuckle. Hildy had done it again. It was a copy of a column from the Houston Chronicle, dated this morning.
Is Judge Shirley Obamal Racist?
The high flying social butterfly, Judge Shirley Obamal has been accused by CPS caseworkers of ignoring recommendations for placement of black foster children and insisting that they only be placed with black families. According to sources inside CPS, this has made placement of older black foster children almost impossible, condemning many of them to life in shelters or group homes until they reach 18 years of age.
When confronted with statistics obtained from her court records at a fund raiser for one of her cronies in the Democrat party, Judge Obamal rudely told this columnist to "Get the hell out of my face."
The column went on to compare Judge Obamal's record with the two other family judges serving the five counties including and surrounding Harris County. Her 100% removal of black children from white or Hispanic foster parents compared to less than 10% by the other two judges made a strong case for answering the headline with a "Yes."
There was a handwritten note at the bottom of the fax: "She says she is going to sue. Can't wait. Love, Celia."
When I handed the fax to Hildy, an almost maniacal grin flashed across her face. "You're a good woman, Hildy Strasser," I said, giving her a hug and a peck on the cheek. "Remind me never to cross you."
"And don't you forget it," she smiled, shaking her finger at me and then returning my hug.
Saturday morning I took the boys to a golf equipment store in San Antonio. That was an experience. The intent was to get Joel fitted with a set of starter clubs so that he could try out for the Academy's newly formed golf team. TJ was interested in everything in the store and had to see everything. If I turned my back for a moment he was off somewhere looking at something. The twins and Chris were almost as bad. I finally had to sit the four of them down in chairs in the footwear section and make them sit there until we were finished.
It took about twenty minutes with one of the salesmen to get Joel outfitted with what he needed. When we got home, I took Chris, Larry, Lenny and TJ into my office and scolded them for their behavior in the store. I explained what I expected of them when I took them shopping with me, that I was only trying to protect them. I would be devastated if one of them were to get hurt or, God forbid, be abducted. After my talk to them I sent them to their rooms. I told them I wanted them to stay there for an hour without talking. Afterwards, I wanted to talk to them again.
TJ looked as if he was ready to cry. I had never had to really scold any of the boys before. Seeing the sad looks on all of their faces, I nearly broke down and released them from their punishment. I didn't, but I think I felt worse than they did.
Joel and I went outside to try out his new golf clubs. It was a little windy and the practice balls were tossed around so that it was hard to determine whether he had hit them correctly. I was glad to see that he was enjoying his new clubs. I just hoped that he maintained his enthusiasm. After about half an hour we decided to go back in the house. Joel said his hand was beginning to hurt. It looks like I should have purchased a golf glove for him to wear.
When their hour was up, TJ came to me and crawled up on my lap. "I'm sorry, daddy. Do you still love me?"
I had to swallow a couple of times before I could answer. "Of course I love you. You're my TJ, my little man. I couldn't live without you. You and your brothers mean the world to me. I'll always love you even when you misbehave," I said, holding him close to my chest.
I held him for several minutes, neither of us saying anything before he looked up into my eyes and said, "I'm hungry. Can I have something to eat?"
"Sure," I laughed, knowing things were back to normal.
While the boys were eating their snack, I talked to them again about how I wanted them to act when we went shopping and why it was important. They nodded their heads that they understood, but I was sure that this wouldn't be the last time I had to have this talk.
Sunday was cold and rainy. By early afternoon, I could tell the boys were getting restless. When I suggested that we all go for a swim, it was met with enthusiasm. I was about to slip into my swim suit when Eric called asking if JR could spend the night. He planned on driving to Houston tonight so he could be there for the 9 o'clock hearing for Bran. I told him to bring JR over and to bring their swim suits. About twenty minutes later they arrived. Hildy told them that we were already in the pool. They changed and joined us.
After several minutes of the boys' horseplay, Eric and I put up the volleyball net and we split up into teams, four players on each side. TJ, Larry, Lenny and I were on one team, JR, Chris, Joel and Eric were on the other side of the net. The water volleyball game lasted a little over half an hour before everyone began to tire. TJ hadn't lasted that long. He spent the last ten minutes or so cheering us on from the edge of the pool. JR lasted a little longer, but he too retired to the pool's edge to watch.
Eric took off for Houston shortly after five. I wished him good luck at the hearing and waved to him as he drove down the lane.
Every time the phone rang at the office Monday morning, Darcie and I both jumped. Carol screened all of our calls and each time it was not Eric, we were disappointed. It was nearly eleven o'clock when we got the call from Eric. Carol put the call through to Darcie's office where we were having a meeting. Darcie answered it by putting it on the speaker.
"We won!" a jubilant Eric announced.
Darcie and I both started congratulating Eric at the same time. It made for a very confusing conversation. After we settled down, Eric explained what happened.
"Judge Collette Dame was a tough old bird. She reminded me of the stereotypical 'school marm'. She had read all of the court reports that had been written about Bran and questioned, no interrogated is a better word, each of the writers. Cross was wonderful when it came to his turn to be under her spotlight. The man has a silver tongue and soon had her smiling at him. He charmed her, but most of all he was thoroughly prepared to persuade her with his legal arguments and citing of relevant case law.
"After she had finished with all of us, she took Bran back to her chambers for a private chat. That lasted about ten minutes, although, it seemed like it was hours. Bran was smiling when she brought him back into the courtroom. That smile made me feel more confident. Taking her seat behind the bench, she wasted no time in announcing her decision. She said that she couldn't strip Bran's father of his parental rights because neither he nor his attorney were present to object. She did, however, continue Bran's placement with me. She ordered another hearing to be set for June 17 to review his placement."
"Fantastic," I said. "I'm sure that JR will be thrilled. Let's celebrate. How about I take you all out to dinner tonight? Why don't we meet at that Italian restaurant on 281, The Grove, at 6:30? I'll see if I can't reserve their party room. Darcie, you and Mel are invited as well. Eric, what time do you think you and Bran will get here?"
"We have to go to the shelter to pick up his clothes and then we'll probably stop for something to eat before we take off. It will probably be somewhere around four or four-thirty."
"Fine, come by the house. JR is coming home with the boys. I don't think I'll tell them anything until you get there."
The rest of what was left of the morning passed more quickly now that we knew of Bran's fate. I was reviewing some files when Carol transferred a call to me. It was Carlos Martinez with information on the purchase of the apartment complex. He told me that everything was on track for closing the deal on January 30. We discussed a few more details before hanging up. I immediately called Jack Hogan. One of the first things I wanted to do at the apartments was to beef up security. I thought Jack might have an idea of some of his buddies on the police force who wanted to earn some additional money by moonlighting.
I explained to Jack, when he answered his phone, what was happening and asked if he knew of six or eight officers who might be interested. I wanted to have around the clock on-site security. He said he knew a few and that he would put the word out to them. He thought it would be a good idea for the applicants to go through him. He would screen out the ones he knew who would slack off or be less than diligent in providing security.
Next, I called Harold Nicholas to see if he could recommend someone who could do some renovations and updating of the apartment complex. He suggested two that I might want to consider. He said if he weren't fully committed, he might want to take on the job. I thanked him and told him that Joey was welcome to visit TJ any time.
I almost forgot to call Hildy and tell her the news about Bran and to tell her we were going out to celebrate. She was thrilled at the news and said that she and Manny would definitely attend the celebration. I told her to ask Marie to see if she would be able to go with us. I held on the phone while she asked. When Hildy came back on the line, she said that Marie couldn't attend, that she was supposed to baby-sit with her neighbor's little boy tonight.
Before I left the office, Carol told me that she had made the reservation for the party room at the restaurant for 6:30. I thanked her and left to meet the boys.
It was all I could do to keep from spilling the news about Bran, but I remained non-committal when the boys asked.
A few minutes after four, Eric pulled up in front of the house. I hollered to JR that his dad was here. He raced down the stairs and ran out the front door. When he saw Bran getting out of the car, he leaped into Bran's arms.
"Hey, little brother, did you miss me?" Bran chuckled.
"Are you home for good?" JR asked.
"I sure am. I never gonna leave you."
By this time the rest of the boys had joined the reunion and had Bran surrounded. Hildy and I joined the welcoming committee and steered the mass of boys back into the house out of the cold.
About a half an hour later, Eric gathered up his boys and told them it was time to go home. As they were leaving, I suggested to Eric that he bring his dad along to supper with us at the restaurant. He said he would see how his dad was doing and maybe he would bring him.
The celebration at the restaurant was a noisy affair. It was a good thing that we were in a private room that could be shut off from the rest of the place or I'm sure that we would have disturbed the other diners. Alan, Eric's dad, did come and seemed to be enjoying himself. He spent much of the evening talking to Hildy and Manfred. To me he seemed to be almost back to the old Alan that I had known.
Bran seemed to be a little embarrassed by all the attention he was receiving, but he was very gracious in his thanks when he was asked to say a few words after Eric made a short speech.
It was after nine o'clock when we left the restaurant. I rushed the boys into the showers as soon as we arrived home. It was, after all, a school night. I was glad that I had insisted that they do their homework before we left for the celebration.
Our lives for the next few weeks were fairly routine, no crises, nothing to interrupt the daily flow of our existence. Joel was getting hooked on golf, wanting to spend at least an hour each night hitting the practice balls when the weather permitted. Ricky continued to brighten our lives with his unending joy. Chris and the twins were involved in preparations for the schools spring recital. They were going to be in the choir. Hildy helped them learn the words to the music and with the parts they were to sing. TJ and I were their cheerleaders.
Eric and I never seem to have enough time to spend together. With the formation of CBJ Properties and the closing on the purchase of the apartment complex, there seem to be even less time for us.
Once the purchase of the apartment complex was finalized, I hired one of the contractors that Harold had recommended to inventory the property to see what repairs were needed to bring it up to code. It took a couple of weeks to get the security in place and to start eliminating the drug trafficking that was rampant there.
Phil Hardin, the contractor I had hired, presented me with a list of things that needed to be done for the property. It was made up of three parts. The first was the minimum needed to meet the city's housing code. The second part was repairs and improvements, not required by code, but advisable to maintain the property and keep it from deteriorating further. The third part was what he called value added improvements that were not necessary but would enhance the value of the property if I ever wanted to resell it.
The total cost of the repairs and improvements that Phil had outlined in all three parts was just under three-quarters of a million dollars. I discussed the proposal with the commercial real estate broker who had handled the sale of the property. She said that, if everything was done that Phil had proposed that it would easily add another two to three million to the value of the property. I gave Phil the go ahead to start the project.
I had continued, on a month to month basis, the property management company in place when I purchased the property. It wasn't that I thought they were doing a good job. It was that I didn't know of anyone else. That soon changed. After doing some research and advertising for the job, I hired a company that would provide onsite management. The two owners of the company were a couple of young men who appeared to be about my age or a little older. One was a licensed electrician with an MBA from the University of Texas and the other was a licensed plumber with a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture from the University of Houston. They had an odd combination of skills and were an odd couple, but I immediately trusted them
I agreed to hire them and provide a two bedroom apartment for them if they agreed to have no other properties to manage. We signed a one year contract with a 30 day notice of termination by either party. Their major responsibilities were to collect the rent and deposit it in the bank each month, deal with renter complaints, make minor repairs once the renovations were complete, and handle renting and evictions. The monthly rental income from the 100 units, if fully occupied, was approximately $120,000. I required them to provide me with a detailed list of the rent of each unit by the tenth of each month and to submit to my accountant quarterly reports for tax purposes.
One Wednesday when I came home from work and meeting the boys as they came home from school, Marie asked if she could talk to me.
"Mr. Johnson, somebody has bought the apartments where I live and are making all kinds of changes. I'm afraid that they may make me move or raise my rent. I can't afford any more rent. They are handing out new rules for all of the residents. There are new people running the apartments. What are we going to do if Ricky and I have to move?" Marie asked, close to tears.
"Marie, don't worry. I can guarantee that your rent will not be increased and you will never have to move unless you want to move."
"How can you be sure?"
"Let's just say I know the owner."