"My God," I shouted, leaping up from my seat. "What happened? How?"
"The details are a little sketchy," Darcie sniffled, as she sat down at the conference table. "Jane, my contact in Wichita, said the CPS office there had sent an investigator to the Phillips' home about a week ago in response to the information that we gave them. They are understaffed like most CPS organizations are and it took a while to schedule the home visit. The investigator didn't find anything overtly amiss during the interview of the parents or Jason and his sister Beth. The investigator still didn't like the atmosphere in the home, so she put the Phillips on a watch list to visit again in two weeks."
At this point, Darcie broke down and sobbed into her handkerchief. I went to the office refrigerator to retrieve a bottle of water and poured Darcie a glass before setting it in front of her. She took a sip and blew her nose before she was able to continue. I think the information about Jason's death affected Darcie more personally because she was seven months pregnant. She was also the one who had transmitted the information about the abuse to the Wichita authorities and felt a sense of blame.
"It seems," Darcie resumed, "the neighbors of the Phillips heard a commotion coming from their home and called the police. When the police arrived and knocked on the door and announced themselves, there wasn't any sound. When they knocked again, they heard a shot. The police broke down the door and found Mr. Phillips on the floor of the entryway with the gun in his hand, bleeding from a self inflicted bullet wound to his head. He was still alive. It appeared to the police that either he was a terrible shot or that he chickened out at the last moment and the bullet only creased the side of his head. He was unconscious. Sadly, they found Jason in a bedroom. He had been severely beaten. There was a bloody baseball bat on the floor next to him. He was still alive, but just barely. By the time EMS arrived he was gone."
"What about Beth and her mother? Where were they when all this was happening?" I asked.
"They were at the school getting Beth registered for the upcoming school year. They arrived after the ambulance had taken Mr. Phillips to the hospital and EMS had taken Jason's body away. CPS was there by that time and took Beth into protective custody. Jane said Beth had been placed in a temporary foster home until Mrs. Phillips could be investigated."
"What's going to happen now? Have the police charged Phillips with murdering his son?" I asked Darcie.
"Jane didn't know, but she was sure that would happen within a couple of days. She said the police were still investigating and the charges probably wouldn't be filed until the autopsy results were released by the coroner."
"How could a father do such a horrible thing to his son?" Paul asked. "It's unthinkable."
"I know," I said. "I feel partially responsible for Jason's death. If I hadn't gotten involved, maybe something like this wouldn't have happened. I don't think I'll tell Joel, unless he asks about Jason. I don't want him to feel any guilt."
"Crane, you shouldn't feel guilty, nor should Joel, none of us should," Darcie said. "Jason's father was a train wreck waiting to happen. Abusers rarely stop abusing unless there is intervention. What you did was to try to cause that intervention to happen. It could just as easily have gone the other way. Although what happened to Jason was tragic, the outcome for Beth is brighter. Jane wasn't able to tell me if Beth had been subjected to the same abuse as Jason. In my experience working in CPS, if a parent abuses one child, all the children in the family are likely to be abused. Your actions may have saved her from growing up being abused."
Carol had been silent during this exchange. When I looked over at her sitting on the other side of the conference table, she was dabbing at the tears streaming down her face. None of them; Darcie, Paul nor Carol, knew Jason, yet they were all deeply affected by his death. It made me grateful that the people who were now running the foundation that I had formed were such caring individuals. I knew that I had chosen them wisely.
Darcie took a deep breath, wiped away her tears before saying, "Paul, we need to review the files of the two families we're supposed to interview today. The first family is due in about half an hour."
"You're right, of course," Paul responded. "We can't help poor Jason, but maybe we can help some other kids have a better life."
"Thanks, to all of you," I said. "I don't tell you often enough how truly proud I am of you. You all do outstanding jobs."
The three of them left to resume their duties, while I remained in the conference room to make a few phone calls. The first was to Jack. He was not in the office, so I left a voicemail for him to call me as soon as he was available. Next I called my real estate agent to see if he had any good land prospects for me to consider. I had to reinvest the profits from the sale of that tract of land or suffer a large tax bite. The roughly $240,000 investment had returned almost $2.4 million.
I left the office and hurried home. We had a meeting this afternoon with Anthony Gardner, one of the architects I'd hired to draw up house plans. I had given both of the architects the revisions that we had come up with and had them redraw the plans. Although Gardner's plan was not the one that everyone seemed to like best, I still wanted to see the plan with the revisions and to visualize how his proposed house would fit on the property. Today was the day we would see the new drawings.
Right at two o'clock, he arrived. I was a little surprised when another younger man stepped out of the passenger side of the car. Mr. Gardner introduced him as Jim Goode, his site planner. After the introduction, Jim took off with a set of house plans and began walking around the property. Every so often he would lean over and place a small orange colored flag in the ground. The debris from the old house had all been hauled away, so he didn't have to scramble over any rubble.
I introduced Hildy, Gilda and my sons to Gardner before he spread out the plans on the picnic table that had escaped the fire. He pointed out how he had incorporated the changes we had suggested as well as some modifications that he felt were necessary to maintain the flow of the house once our changes were made. I had to admit that what he had done had certainly improved the plans. Hildy agreed. She was particularly impressed with what he had done with the revised kitchen.
We had been discussing the plans for maybe twenty minutes when Jim returned and announced he had the perfect spot for building the house and insisted that we come with him so that he could show us. The spot that he had chosen was situated on the hill that had been behind the old house. I always knew it had a great view of the lake, but had never considered building the new house there. Jim was excited as he paced off where each room would be and pointed out the views that each would have of the lake. His excitement was catching. I could tell from Hildy and the boys' reactions, that they were reconsidering their choice of plans. I, too, could see the merits of the design that Gardner had developed. I didn't want to make any hasty judgment. I still wanted to see William Gessler's redesign before I made any decision. That would have to wait until next Wednesday.
As we walked back to Gardner's car, I thanked him for his excellent design and told him I would let him know our decision by the end of next week. We shook hands before he got in his car and drove away.
"Dad," Joel said, as we were walking back to our temporary home. "Mr. Gardner's house makes a lot of sense the way they explained it. I guess, when I was looking at the plans when we were at the apartment, I was only looking at a house, not a house on our land."
"I think we all made that mistake. We still need to look at the other plan when Mr. Gessler comes at three o'clock next Wednesday. You boys should be home from school shortly after he gets here. I want you all to be part of making the final decision on which one we build. It's a family decision."
"Dad, is it all right if I go to John's house tomorrow? He called and wanted me to come over."
"Sure, have you got any plans? Do you think he might like to go horseback riding?"
"I don't think so. John doesn't like riding very much. I think we're just going to stay at his house. He just got a new skateboard."
"Okay, just let me know when you want to go over there."
"Thanks," Joel said, giving me a hug.
Marie was finishing up with her cleaning as we got back to the "house". Ricky was still taking his nap. I hadn't asked her to this point if she and Dirk were still seeing each other, even though I was curious. I decided there was no time like the present.
"Marie, how are you and Dirk getting along?" I asked.
Marie smiled and ducked her head before looking at me and answering, "We see him every weekend. Sometimes he brings Jamie, the boy he works with, to see us. Ricky really likes Jamie."
"That's great, I hope everything works out the way you want it. You know we are all very fond of you and Ricky and only want the best for you both."
"Thank you, Mr. Johnson, I really appreciate everything you've done for me and Ricky."
Just then we heard the rapid thump, pat, thump, pat as Ricky raced down the hallway toward us. Before he reached us, Joel swept him up in his arms and swung him around.
"Hi, munchkin, did you have a good nap?" Joel asked.
"Hi," came Ricky's usual greeting followed by a rapid shaking of his head and a giggle.
"Come on, ornery, it's time we went home. Say goodbye to all your friends and gather up your things," Marie told him.
Ricky went to each of the boys to give and received a hug and a kiss. Next he came to me for the same treatment. Lastly, he ran to Hildy, who swept him up in her arms for her goodbye hug and kiss. Hildy whispered something in his ear, which caused him to let out a characteristic giggle before she let him down.
Ricky started back to his mother, but suddenly turned around and asked, "Where's Gilda?"
"She went to lie down, honey," Hildy said. "She was tired. I'll tell her you said goodbye. Is that okay?"
"Marie, tell Dirk if he wants to bring Jamie out to go horseback riding, have him give me a call. I'm sure we'll go riding sometime this weekend," I said.
"Thanks, I'll tell him when I talk to him tonight."
Joel picked up Ricky. The other boys gathered up his toys and things before they all paraded outside to Marie's VW. Ensconced in his car seat and waving goodbye to the boys, he and his mom took off for home.
Saturday morning after breakfast, the boys and I climbed into the van and headed first to drop Joel off at John's house. When we arrived, John was on his skateboard in the driveway. When he saw the van pulling in, he lost his balance and fell on his rear end, but got up laughing and ran to greet us. Pauline must have been watching from a window, because she came out of the house as we were getting out of the van. Right behind her were Rachel, Cassie and Linda. The twins walked quickly over to greet Cassie and Linda.
I spent a few minutes talking to Pauline. It had been a while since I had any information on her estranged husband, Bruce. She said the only contact she had with him was through her lawyer. From what the lawyer told her, Bruce was getting to be more homophobic than ever. She said that if conditions didn't improve by the end of the year, she would be filing for divorce. In a way I felt sad for Bruce. I think he loved his wife and kids, but he couldn't get over the fact that his son just might be gay. That had blinded him to everything else in his marriage.
Before we left, I told Pauline that I would be back to pick up Joel at four o'clock. I rounded up my other four and we headed to the farm to ride the horses. When Dirk called last night, he asked if he could meet us there around ten. If we hurried, we would get there before he arrived.
As we turned off 281 onto the road leading to the farm, a white Mercedes turned in behind us. I didn't think it was Dirk, because he drove a red Mazda RX-7. The Mercedes followed us as we turned into the driveway of the farm. I was surprised when Dirk stepped out of car.
"I didn't recognize your car. I thought you drove a Mazda," I said, as I shook his hand.
"This is a new addition. I just got it a couple of weeks ago. The other one wasn't too practical to take Marie and Ricky any place," he replied.
A husky young boy about the same age as the twins, timidly approached Dirk and me. To my surprise, Marie and Ricky also climbed out of the car. I didn't know they were going to come also.
"Crane, I'd like you to meet my little brother, Jamie Follet."
"I'm glad to meet you, Jamie. Are you ready to ride a horse?"
"I guess," he said.
By this time my four sons had gathered around for their introductions. Afterwards, I turned to Marie and asked if she and Ricky wanted to go riding as well. She declined, but was sure that Ricky would enjoy a short ride.
The twins took Jamie by the arms and led him to the tack room. Tracy and Rosie were already there getting the horses saddled up as we arrived. They were getting all eight horses ready. I told them that we would only need seven horses saddled since Marie wasn't going to ride. Tracy said that he would ride with us while Marie and Rosie stayed behind.
I climbed up on my horse and Tracy handed Ricky up to me. I put him in the saddle in front of me. His eyes got big as he looked around at the boys getting up on their mounts. His smile could not have gotten any larger. As I urged my horse into a slow walk, Ricky began to giggle and clap his hands. I had to hold on tight to him as well as the reins to keep him from wiggling off the saddle. It was a memorable experience for both of us. He didn't want to get off the horse when the ride was over. I only let him ride for about twenty minutes. I didn't want his bottom to be too sore from riding.
Dirk and Jamie were having the times of their lives. It was the first time that Jamie had ridden any horse other than ponies at the county fair and all they did was go around in a circle. When the twins started to trot their horses, Jamie wanted to follow suit. Dirk had to say no. He explained to Jamie that he needed more riding experience before he could ride faster.
"Well, when can I get more experience?" Jamie asked, clearly disappointed.
"Maybe Mr. Johnson will let us come again sometime," Dirk said.
I overheard the conversation as I rode up behind them. "Dirk, I want you to feel free to bring Jamie here anytime. Just make sure you call the Smiths to see if one of them will be here and it's a convenient time. Now that school is starting, the only time the boys and I will probably have a chance to ride is on the weekends. You're always welcome to join us."
"Thanks, Crane, I think this will be good exercise for Jamie. It's good exercise for me also, but I know my butt is going to be sore tomorrow. It's been way too long since I've ridden a horse."
About a half an hour later, I whistled at the boys and motioned for them to come back to the stables. It was almost time for the lunch that Hildy had packed for us. I hadn't planned for Ricky and Marie, but if I knew Hildy, she had packed more than enough for all of us to eat. When I had called the Smiths last night and told them I was bringing a picnic lunch, Rosie said she would fix the dessert.
I made the boys wash their hands before I would let them sit down at the picnic table. Dirk helped me carry the coolers from the van to the table. I was right. Hildy had packed enough food for a small army. There was no danger that anyone would go hungry. Dirk tried to minimize the amount of food that Jamie put on his plate with little success. He matched my boys' full plates. Almost all the sandwiches were gone by the time Rosie brought out the pies; one apple and the other cherry. Tracy followed her carrying a gallon of vanilla ice cream to top the pie portions.
No sooner had the pie been consumed than Larry and Lenny approached me. "Dad, can we go riding again? Jamie wants to ride, too," Lenny pleaded.
"Don't you think you ought to wait a while to let your lunch settle? I wouldn't want you to throw up on your horses."
That brought a chuckle from them. "Ah, dad, we won't do that. Please, we won't get to ride much after school starts. Please!" Larry added his pitch to his brother's.
"Okay, but only if you promise not to trot your horses. Keep them at a walk, understand?"
"Yes, dad," the stereophonic response came. They took off before I could change my mind. I wondered how long it would take them to forget my instructions.
I started to get up and follow them, but Tracy said he would ride with them as did Chris. Dirk volunteered to ride with them also. I decided to clean up the trash left over from lunch and pack up everything to be stored in the van. Marie and Rosie helped. TJ stayed to play with Ricky and Rosie's miniature dachshund, Peanut. It was a new addition to the farm.
Marie and Rosie seemed to be getting along like old friends. I was glad to see that. Rosie was stuck on the farm all day with no one to talk to while Tracy was at work. They only had one car and Tracy needed it to get to his job. She needed another woman to talk to.
"How is Tracy doing?" I asked Rosie, when we finished clearing up from lunch.
"He's doing okay, I guess," she answered. "I know he's frustrated not being able to go back to college. The only thing he ever wanted to be, every since I first knew him as a little boy, was a veterinarian. He still reads the text books that he had when he was going to college. I think he'll wear them out, as much as he goes over them."
"Does he still want to attend Texas A&M?" I asked.
"Oh, yes," she said. "There's only one place for him, that's A&M. Their program is nationally recognized as being one of the best."
"What would you do if he went back to school? College Station is about 160 miles from here."
"I'd like to stay here. I really like living on this place, so does he, but I'd go anyplace that Tracy asked me to go. I don't see that happening anytime soon. It takes a lot of money for college. That's one thing we don't have a lot of at the moment."
"Rosie, I know that Tracy is a very proud man and wants to make it on his own. Do you think he would accept some help from me to go back to college? I wanted to ask you before I approached Tracy with the offer. I didn't want to insult him."
"I don't know, Mr. Johnson," she said, after a pause. "Sometimes his pride gets in his way. I know it's his dream to become a veterinarian. I think he might, if he thought it wasn't charity."
"I know it's too late to start this semester since it's so close to school starting. If he is agreeable, second semester is very doable. There would be a lot of things to work out in any case. If you think there is a possibility that he might accept my offer, I'll talk to him when the boys finish their rides."
"It won't hurt to ask. The worst he could do is to turn you down," Rosie said. "And if he does, I'll kill him."
It was another thirty minutes before we saw the six horses come over the hill and head for the stables. I walked down to the stables to see that the boys took care of the horses. When I got there the twins were giving Jamie a lesson on how to brush his horse. Jamie's eyes were wide and his head was nodding as he took in everything Larry and Lenny were saying. Tracy was standing off to the side barely able to suppress a laugh. In fact, the twins were repeating to Jamie, almost word for word, what Rosie had told them the first time they were here.
I watched while the horses were taken care of by the boys. I think they enjoyed the task of brushing the horses almost as much as riding. It was easy to tell the horses enjoyed it.
"Tracy, I'd like to speak with you, if you have a minute," I said, as we started back toward the house. The boys had run back to the house to get something to drink closely followed by Dirk.
"Sure, Mr. Johnson, is something wrong?"
"No, nothing like that. I was wondering if you were planning on going back to college."
"I really want to, but without my family's support, there's no way. I barely make enough on my job to support Rosie as it is. If it weren't for what we earn taking care of your place here, we would be in pretty bad shape. I want to thank you for letting us stay here. Rosie loves it as much or more than I do."
"Tracy, I don't want to insult you or what you're trying to do, but would you let me help you? I'm not offering you charity. What I'm proposing is a loan that will allow you to return to college and concentrate on your studies. I expect to be paid back when you get your practice set up."
"But what about Rosie? I know she doesn't want to leave here and I'd have to take the car to A&M. I couldn't leave her stranded here without a car."
"This place needs a pick-up. I'll get one for use on the farm, that way she would have transportation whenever she needed it. There's one proviso attached to the loan I'm willing to make to you. You must maintain a high academic standing. As an incentive for you to excel, I'll be willing to forgive a percentage of the loan based on your standing in your class at graduation. If you graduate number one in your class, I'll forgive 50% of the loan. With each rank below number one, the percentage will drop by 5%. That would mean, if you graduate eleventh or lower, you would be responsible for repaying the entire amount of the loan. The loan will be interest free until you have your practice established. After that, the interest rate will be 3%."
"Wow! That's most generous of you, Mr. Johnson. I don't know what to say. I'll have to talk it over with Rosie. I wouldn't do anything without her okay. I don't want to sound like I'm ungrateful, but why are you doing this? What do you get out of it?"
"Tracy, I'm a very wealthy man. Part of it is my doing and part of it is dumb, blind luck. My boys are well provided for. We have everything that we could possibly need. I was always taught that accumulating wealth just to accumulate it is selfish. I want to do some good with the money I have. That's one of the reasons that I started the foundation to help kids in foster care get adopted. I can't solve all the world's problems, but in a small way I want to solve a few in my community. I'm not some do-gooder handing out money without expecting a return on my investment. I expect results from my philanthropy. If you become successful, as I'm confident that you will, I expect you to help someone else. That's up to you, but I can assure you that you will be repaid ten fold in the satisfaction you get from doing it."
"How long do I have to make up my mind?" Tracy asked.
"Take as long as you need. There's no time limit on the offer. I doubt that you could get enrolled at A&M this late, but if you want, I could see if I could pull some strings."
"No, I wouldn't want you to do that and besides there are too many things to arrange ..." he trailed off with a far away look in his eyes.
"Come on, dad, we want to go swimming," TJ said, tugging on my shirtsleeve.
"Okay, is everybody ready to go?"
"Yeah, Jamie wants to come, too. He doesn't have a swimsuit. He can borrow one of mine," Chris chimed in.
"Did he ask Dirk if he could come and swim with you guys?" I asked Chris.
"No, but can he, dad?"
"You go ask Dirk. They may have other plans."
"Okay," he said. I could see his mind working as he ran toward his brothers. I knew the plan was to gang up on Dirk.
As the four of them plus Jamie surrounded Dirk, I could see him listen to them and then look up toward me. I nodded my head in agreement. Dirk broke into a laugh. "I guess I just got shanghaied. Okay, Jamie, we can go swim with your new friends. I'll need to call your mother and let her know what's happening."
"Tell her you're staying for supper. I'm sure there is something in the refrigerator to throw on the grill. At least it wasn't destroyed in the fire," I told Dirk.
I realized on the way back home that Ricky probably didn't have any swimwear either and I knew if the boys were in the pool he would want to get in with them. Maybe Hildy could come up with something.
Hildy's suggestion for a swimsuit for Ricky surprised me. She asked why he needed one. After all there would only be boys in the pool and there were no neighbors that could be offended by his nudity. I saw her point, although, I hoped my boys didn't get the bright idea to swim in the raw. Well, at least not while we had company.
I was getting changed when the phone rang. When I answered, it was Jack. He was returning my call from yesterday.
"Crane, sorry I didn't get back to you sooner. I've been out of town on an investigation and just got back about an hour ago. What can I do for you?"
"Jack, I want to find out as much as you can about a Bill Phillips in Wichita, Kansas. He murdered his son and I want the son-of-a-bitch to go down for it. We met the family while we were vacationing in Orlando. Joel found out that Phillips was physically abusing his son. Anyway, we put CPS onto them and I guess it set him off, because he brutally beat his son Jason to death with a baseball bat. I want to find every derogatory piece of information about him that you can dig up. If the bastard goes on trial, I want to give the prosecution as much ammunition as possible so that they can justify asking for the death penalty."
"I've never seen this side of you, Crane. This guy must have really pushed the wrong buttons with you. We'll have to farm the investigation out to someone local. We don't have an office in Kansas and we don't have a license to do business there. Give me all the information you have on this Bill Phillips."
I gave Jack all the information I had on the family, which was not all that much. I just hoped it was enough to get the investigation started.