I sat down at the kitchen table and was talking to Hildy when the phone rang.
"Hello," I answered.
"Crane, it's Jack. I just received the almost complete report on Jason's dad. This guy is a real piece of work. I'd like to get my hands on the creep."
"What did you find out?"
"We've traced the family back about eight years. Before that it gets a little hazy. Anyway, about eight years ago, they were living in the Los Angeles area. He was working for a company that did aerospace work. At that time there was another child in the family. Around the time their daughter Beth was born, the other child named William died under mysterious circumstances. He was a couple of years older than Jason and supposedly drowned in the family pool. The suspicious thing about his death was the amount of bruising on his body. A coroner's inquest was held, but the results did not name anyone as being responsible for the death. The family was put on a watch list for possible child abuse by family services."
"That doesn't sound good," I said, shaking my head.
"No, it doesn't. About a year or so after that, the family moved to the Seattle, Washington area where Bill went to work for another aerospace company. From all indications, Bill was a talented engineer and well respected for his work. They lived in Seattle for about six years. A year before they left for Wichita, family services again got involved with the family after the school reported possible child abuse of Jason to the authorities. It seems that the physical education teacher noticed bruising on Jason that seemed unusual. The family was investigated, but unfortunately nothing happened."
"Didn't the Seattle authorities know about the incidents in Los Angeles?"
"No, it's unfortunate, but the various agencies responsible for child safety have no duty to report incidents to other agencies in other states or even other jurisdictions within the same state. They next moved to Wichita where Bill took a job with another engineering firm supplying electronic equipment to the Boeing plant there. Some of the Phillips' neighbors indicated that Bill was very strict with Jason and Beth and never hesitated to use corporal punishment. The neighbors didn't consider this to be unusual. It seems that the neighborhood was mainly populated by a strict religious group that raised their children according to the 'spare the rod and spoil the child' dictum."
"Look," I said, "I'm not opposed to a swat on the seat of the pants to emphasize a point of bad behavior, but whipping or beating a child is criminal. I don't understand parents who can use violence to punish their kids. Did you find out anything else about any run-ins with the police?"
"No, other than a few speeding tickets and some parking violations, we haven't uncovered any other problems."
"What about the wife? Is there anything on her?"
"Everyone that we have talked to about her says that she's a 'cold fish'. The only emotion she ever displayed was anger, but even that never led to physical violence. I have to qualify that; no one ever saw her strike either of the children. The closest to violence occurred when she would grab Jason or Beth by the arm and drag them into the house. We don't know what happened inside the house."
"Thanks, Jack, turn the information that you've gathered over to the prosecutor's office in Wichita. I don't know if it will have any impact on Phillips' trial. It might, however, have some influence on the sentencing phase if he's convicted. Good job, as usual. Send me a copy of the report and the bill to my accountant."
"I hope they hang this guy," Jack said. "I'd bet my bottom dollar that Jason was the second kid the bastard has killed. Hanging is really too good for him."
Saturday morning, I made a quick trip into San Antonio to Hakim's shop for my tuxedo. It fit perfectly. As I started for home, it started to rain. It wasn't a hard rain, but just enough to cancel the boys' horseback riding for the day. This meant I would have to find something to occupy the boys in the house. In the limited space of our temporary housing, this presented a challenge. When I arrived home, the boys had solved the problem and were totally involved in video games.
The rain had let up by 5:15 when Eric arrived to pick me up. Our reservation for dinner was for 6:00, so we had plenty of time to get there.
"Hi, Mr. Levin," Chris said, as he answered the door. "Is JR with you?"
"No, son, he's staying home with Bran and Grandpa Alan," Eric said.
"Good evening, Eric," I said. "You look handsome in your tux."
"That may be, but I feel like a penguin in this getup."
"Let me get my jacket and I'll be ready to go." I went to my bedroom, removed the jacket from its hanger and returned to the living room. I gathered the boys around and said, "It's going to be late when I get back from the concert. You behave for Hildy and go to bed when she tells you. Give me a hug and I'll see you tomorrow morning." I was enveloped in a group hug from all five of them.
"Have a good time, dad," Joel said, as he followed us to the door.
"Thanks, son," I said. "I'm depending on you to help Hildy with your brothers."
I waved goodbye to the boys and Hildy as Eric and I drove away. It had been way too long since we had any alone time together, despite our promise to make time for us to be together.
"This is going to be a great evening," Eric said. "I tried to get tickets to this performance, but they were all sold out months ago. I about fell over when George Mason, the boss where I'm doing the consulting, offered me his tickets. He said that if he gave them to one of his employees, it would be looked on as favoritism. He refused my offer of paying for them. I'm not familiar with the theater, so I hope the seats are good."
"Let me look at the tickets." Eric dug in the inside pocket of his jacket, withdrew the tickets and handed them to me. "Wow, these are great seats. In fact, they are in a box just to the left of the stage. I've been to the theater before and know the general layout. These tickets must have cost him a couple hundred apiece."
"Yikes, I'm glad he turned down my offer of payment," Eric laughed.
We arrived at the restaurant a few minutes before our reservation and were seated in the bar area. We ordered a soft drink and had taken our first sips when the maitre'd approached and announced that our table was available. He snapped his fingers and a waiter hurried over to take our drinks to our table.
"This is nice," I said, when we were settled with the menus. "I haven't been here in a long time. The food has always been excellent every time I've been here before. I understand the chef has just recently been honored as one of the top five in the state."
The waiter arrived and asked if we were ready to order. I asked him what specialty the chef had for this evening. He rattled off a list of off menu items including a poached salmon that sounded great. I ordered it. Eric decided he would order the prime rib, rare.
We chatted a few minutes before the wine steward came up to our table and asked if we wanted wine with our meal. I explained that we were having different entrées and asked what he would recommend. For me he suggested an Oregon Pinot Gris. For Eric he recommended Bordeaux. We liked his recommendation and each ordered a glass. Since Eric was driving we didn't think one glass of wine with his meal would impair his ability to drive safely.
We discussed a wide range of subjects as we ate our salads and waited for our main course. I asked him how Bran was doing. We hadn't seen him in quite a while.
"I am so proud of that young man," Eric beamed. "He's a thirty year-old in a sixteen year-old's body. Manfred can't praise him enough for the job he has done working for him. He only works on Saturday now that school has started. He's a starting player and captain on the school's soccer team. Everything he does, he does well. He has made so much progress since he came to live with us. JR loves him as if he were his natural brother. I still worry about him, though."
"Why?" I asked.
"Well, so far he has been able to keep his sexual preference a secret from his classmates. If that gets out, I'm afraid he might get hurt. Not necessarily physically, he's able to handle that quite well, but emotionally. For all his maturity, there is still the scared little boy hiding inside we saw when you first found him. Every once in a while he'll show that. He'll come to sit beside me and want to be held. I understand where he's coming from. There are times when I need the same thing." Eric looked straight into my eyes as he said that.
"Maybe we can do something about that," I said.
Our conversation was cut short when our main courses were placed in front of us. The wine steward followed with the glasses of wine.
Eric raised his glass in a toast, "To more evenings like this."
"Many more," I responded, touching my glass to his.
The food was excellent. The portions were generous. The wines complemented the food perfectly. When we finished, we decided there was time to have dessert and coffee before we left for the theater. Our waiter suggested the Napoleon. That sounded good so we ordered it along with a cup of Blue Mountain coffee.
When the dessert arrived, it looked almost too pretty to eat, almost like a work of art. It consisted of four squares of crisp phillo with layers of chocolate mousse and white chocolate mousse interspersed. On the top square of phillo, was a dollop of whipped cream with fresh red raspberries over it and around the plate. A raspberry sauce decorated the plate in an intricate design. A light dusting of confectioner's sugar finished off the plate. After feasting our eyes on the masterpiece, we dug in. It tasted as good as it looked.
I paid the bill and we left for the theater. Fortunately, we were a little early so there were plenty of parking spaces in the parking garage down the street from the theater. Our box seats were better than I had imagined. When we arrived, the other two seats in the box were unoccupied. As we looked over the program the usher had given us, an elegantly dressed older couple entered and took their seats. The woman was walking with a cane. They looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place where I had seen them before.
"Mr. Johnson, isn't it?" the man said.
"Yes, I'm Crane Johnson," I said. "Please forgive me, but I can't place where we've met and I must confess I don't remember your names."
"It's been a number of years," he said. "I'm Keith Long and this is my wife Coral. We met at a United Way kick-off banquet. You sat at our table. I believe that was in 1992."
"Now I remember. That was the last one I attended. How have you been?"
"Very well, thank you. We made a special effort to make it for this concert. We've been on a cruise up the west coast to Alaska. Our cruise ship docked in San Diego last night and we took the first flight out this morning to get here for this," Keith said.
"Excuse my bad manners, this is Eric Levin. He is a neighbor of mine. He's the one who got tickets to this."
After the social amenities were taken care of, Keith asked, "As I recall, you were in the consulting business, weren't you?"
"Your memory is excellent. I was when we met. I sold the business a year or so ago. Now I run a charitable foundation that assists hard to place children with adoptive parents."
"That's interesting," Coral said. "What's the name of the foundation?"
"It's called the Adoption Support for Exceptional Children, or ASEC for short," I answered.
"I've heard about that. What exactly do you do?"
I explained the working of the foundation and the types of support we provided for needy families in order for them to adopt. She listened intently as I extolled the virtues of what we were doing. The only thing that stopped me was the theater darkening for the start of the concert.
"We'll talk more at intermission," she whispered.
The three tenors, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti, were magnificent. Individually, in pairs or as a trio their voices filled the theater with unforgettable sounds. The audience, including Eric and I were enthralled. When it came time for the intermission, the audience arose, as one, to give them a standing ovation.
As the applause died down, I turned to Eric and asked if he would like to go out to the lobby for a glass of champagne. He declined but said he needed to find the restrooms before the second half of the program. I gave him directions and remained in my seat. I always hated the crowds and trying to fight my way to the bar to get a drink at these affairs.
"Mr. Johnson..." Coral Long started.
"Please call me Crane," I interrupted.
"Crane, then, how big is your foundation?"
"We run a lean organization. There are only three salaried staff. The rest of us are paid $1 a year for our services. That includes our accountant, our lawyer and the board members. We try to devote as much of our income to our assistance as we can. The one thing about us is that we make a long term commitment to supporting the families who adopt. Much as we would like to help every family whose file comes across our desks, that would be impossible. We have a fairly large endowment, but it would soon be depleted if we helped everyone."
"Your foundation sounds like it does a lot of good. I guess the reason we were interested in hearing about it is because Keith was adopted as a teenager by a wonderful family. We adopted three youngsters, two boys and a girl. They're all grown now. We also fostered a total of seven children over the years, ranging in age from two to twelve."
"That's great," I said. "I've adopted five boys, myself. Eric is raising a foster son."
"My goodness, raising five must keep you busy," Coral said. Just then Keith returned accompanied by one of the ushers. The usher was carrying a tray with four glasses of champagne. "I hope you will join us. Since I don't get around too well, we've made arrangements for champagne to be brought to the box every time we're here. It's one of our indulgences."
"Thank you very much. That is most kind of you. I'm not sure if Eric will join us when he comes back. He's the designated driver tonight."
"We don't have to worry about that," Keith said. "Our driver will take us home."
"What business are you in?" I asked.
"We're both retired," Keith said. "Before retiring, we owned several businesses. Maybe you have heard of Long Realty. That was our first business venture. We also owned the Long automobile dealerships. We sold all of them when we retired a couple of years ago."
"Of course, I should have made the connection."
Eric arrived back with a look of frustration on his face. "I swear, it's worth your life even getting in the door of the restrooms."
"Be glad you're not a woman. The wait is twice as long," Coral said. Would you like a glass of champagne? We have an extra."
"Thank you, I think I will. I need something to settle me down," Eric said, as he accepted the glass she handed him. "We may have to stop for a cup of coffee before we start home if this isn't worn off by then."
"I'm not a champagne drinker, but this is good," I said.
"This isn't the rot-gut that they serve at the bar in the lobby," Keith offered. "We have a special supply of really good French Champagne that they keep for us."
"I'm impressed," I said.
As the theater started to darken in preparation for the second half of the performance, the usher, who had brought the tray of champagne glasses, returned and collected our now empty glasses.
The second half of the performance was, if anything, better than the first. When it was over, the audience gave the performers another standing ovation and didn't stop until the tenors had taken three curtain calls. We said our farewells to the Longs and exited the theater by a side exit. Instead of heading straight for the car park, we strolled toward a small Italian cafe about a block from the theater. We were lucky to get there before the place got too crowded. A strong cup of espresso was what we needed before heading home. It was just after 11 PM.
After we had drunk our espresso, we decided to head home. The cafe was now crowded with people waiting for a table. The night was warm, as are most fall evenings in San Antonio, but the light breeze made the walk to the parking garage quite pleasant.
The crush of cars that would have been exiting the parking garage just after the theater let out had subsided. I was fastening my seatbelt when Eric leaned over, placed his hand behind my head and pulled me toward him. He kissed me and I returned the kiss.
"I've missed this," he said. "Colorado is the last time we have ever been able to get together. That's way too long."
"I know. With your schedule and mine, it's hard to find the time we would like to be together. Let's go to my place."
"Capital idea," Eric said, and started the car.
We headed out of the parking garage and toward Highway 281. The traffic was moving smoothly at first, but then came to a complete standstill. We sat there for nearly ten minutes before the traffic began to creep ever so slowly forward.
"I wonder what's going on at this time of night that makes traffic get so backed up," I said.
"Oh, no!" Eric exclaimed. "I just remembered. I saw on the noon news that they were going to shut down 281 to one lane to resurface the outer lane. It's going to be this way all the way from the airport to Thousand Oaks."
"Great, just great," I groaned. "I'd ask you to turn on the radio, but at this time of night all you could probably get is some hillbilly station. After listening to those great voices tonight, I don't think I could stand listening to the nasal twang. We might as well try to make the best of it."
"Maybe I can work my way over to the right lane and exit onto the access road up ahead here," Eric said, more to himself than to me.
Thankfully, a kind motorist, or one that was asleep at the wheel, let us into the right lane. It still took us almost half an hour to reach the exit. Cars were backed up on it also, but there were spurts of movement as the traffic lights ahead changed and let a few cars through. Once past the traffic light, we were able to move along at a slow but steady pace to the next light. We were lucky that we were able to get off at that exit. All the ones after that were blocked by the resurfacing crews. After the second traffic light, the cars moved at regular highway speeds until reaching the next light. The stop and go was annoying, but at least we were making progress. That is until we reached the Thousand Oaks exit. It seemed like every car on 281 was trying to exit as we approached. Since Texas traffic law states that feeder road traffic must yield to exiting freeway traffic it took us another ten minutes to get past it. Had we strictly adhered to the letter of the law it would have taken much longer to get through the area.
"By the way," I said, as we got back onto 281 and started on our way again. "I saw your dad at Darcie's last Sunday. He looks so much better than the last time I saw him."
"I can't believe the change in him. He credits most of his recovering the will to live to Ricky. That little boy has so much love to give and he just would not let dad be withdrawn. It's the greatest feeling in the world to have a child climb on your lap and snuggle up to you. I don't know how he knew, but Ricky seemed to sense that dad needed someone to hold. You could see the change in dad every time Ricky had been at the house."
"He is a charmer," I said. "Everybody loves him and nobody pities him because of his handicap. After a while, you don't even notice his leg is missing. If anything ever happened to Marie, God forbid, I would take him and raise him as my own. What's one more boy in the family?"
"Let's hope nothing happens to Marie," Eric laughed. "I don't think you need another boy to raise."
"You're right, but I'd do it in a heartbeat."
It was past 1:30 when we drove through the gate to my property. Eric gave me another lingering kiss before we got out and started for the front door. I put the key in the lock and opened the door. The house was dark except for a small light over the stove in the kitchen. I turned it off, took Eric's hand and headed for the bedroom. I opened the door to my bedroom and pulled Eric in before switching on the light.
"Hi, dad," said a small voice from my bed.