"Is that what you want?"
"I don't know," Peter responded.
"Come here," I said, indicating for him to come and sit on my lap. I wasn't sure if he would, since he had never done so before. He hesitated and then slowly approached before climbing onto my lap. I was surprised when he leaned his head back against my chest, took hold of one of my arms and pulled it around him. Once he was settled, I asked, "Do you know what CPS is?"
"It's that lady that took me to her office."
"Yes, Mrs. Shannon works for CPS." I didn't want to go into any big explanation of what CPS was. It was enough for him to think that Theresa was CPS. "You see, she has a lot to say about whether you can stay with us. One of these days we are going to go to court and talk to the judge. The judge will listen to Mrs. Shannon and a lot of other people and then he will decide where you are going to live. He may think it would be better for you to go back and live with your mom and dad."
"No! I don't want to."
"Will you tell me why?"
"They don't like me."
"What makes you say that?"
"They said so."
"What did they say?"
"My momma said she hated me."
"What about your dad?"
"He said he wanted to drop me off a bridge."
"Do you know why they left you at our front gate?"
"Momma said you took care of bad boys."
"Why did she think you were a bad boy?"
"I don't know. Lots of times they'd put me in that dog thing when they left. Sometimes I wet my pants 'fore they came home and dad would spank me."
"Well, I don't think you're a bad boy and neither does TJ or the other boys." He didn't respond, but seemed to hold onto my arm even tighter. It wasn't long before I could feel his chest heaving with his silent sobs. I kissed the top of his head and thought the best thing to do was to say nothing, to just hold him until the sobbing ceased. I wondered what the 'dog thing' was. Maybe it was a carrier or maybe a dog house. I'd have to check with Theresa to see if she knew.
"Peter," a dripping wet TJ said, as he climbed out of the pool, "are you gonna come back in the pool?"
Peter sat up and swiveled around on my lap before standing up. He turned to look at me with a questioning look in his eyes. "I love you, son," I whispered to him. He gave me a broad smile and ran off to take TJ's offered hand. I wiped away stray tears that had leaked out of my eyes before I decided to rejoin the boys in the pool.
We played in the pool for about another hour or so before Lenny came up to me and asked, "When we gonna eat supper?"
"What do you want to eat?" I asked.
"Pizza," he answered. That was met with enthusiastic agreement by his twin, who had swum up beside us.
"Okay, guys, everybody out of the pool and into the showers. As soon as everyone is ready we'll go for pizza. Chris, leave that plastic on your cast until you get out of the shower. I'll help you take it off when you're done. TJ, can you help Peter get ready?"
"Sure, dad, come on, Peter."
I took my shower and was dressed by the time Chris and the twins came down the stairs. The plastic bag had been removed that had been protecting his cast. I gave him a quizzical look.
"They helped me," he said, pointing at the twins. "It wasn't hard, but the tape hurt a little when they pulled it off."
We were soon joined by the rest of the boys. I would have asked Hildy and Manfred to go with us, but they had gone to a church supper. When we arrived at Little Rome Pizza, the place was fairly crowded for a Monday and we had to wait for about fifteen minutes before a table became available that could seat all of us. I was a little surprised and also pleased when Peter took the chair next to mine at the table. Maybe this afternoon's conversation with him had allayed the fear he had previously displayed towards me.
I don't know where the boys put all the pizza, but we ate three large ones and there was only one slice left when everybody was full. I knew it wouldn't be over an hour before they would be looking for a snack. Oh, to be young again and have that youthful metabolism.
Later that evening when I went to tuck the boys in bed, I was only a little bit surprised when Peter didn't duck under the covers when I got to him. He even gave me a big smile when I kissed him on the forehead. This kid was getting to me.
Hildy was fixing breakfast when I walked into the kitchen for my first cup of coffee. "You look chipper this morning," she said, handing me a cup.
"It's a wonder what a good night's sleep will do for you," I responded. I went on to tell her about my conversation with Peter and his asking me if I was going to be his daddy.
"Well, are you?"
"Hildy, I don't honestly know if I'm ready to care for another kid. I don't know that I'm equipped to handle the ones I have now. Besides, it might be a moot point if there's a relative who is capable and willing to raise him. One thing I'm sure of is that his parents are not going to get custody of him, if I have anything to say about it."
"I'm with you on that," she said. "If that 'dog thing' he mentioned is what I think it is, I'll fight to keep them from having contact with him. Ever! As far as you being capable of raising your five, I have no doubts that you are absolutely capable. Adding Peter would be some additional work, but it would hardly be noticeable."
"The kid is growing on me," I said, getting up to go wake the boys for breakfast.
Ten minutes later, the six of them were sitting at the table piling their plates with pancakes and sausage. Joel helped Peter pour the maple syrup on his pancakes. It didn't take long before their plates were literally licked clean. When they were excused, Joel led them to the dishwasher and supervised the stacking of the dishes in it for washing. As they left for their bedrooms to wash up and brush their teeth, Peter gave me a quick hug, before running to catch up with TJ.
"He is coming around," Hildy said.
With a lump in my throat, I nodded and went to begin making phone calls. The first was to Gerald Cousins to check on my finances. Although I kept good records on both my projected income and expenses, I didn't keep detailed records as to when the bills were paid. I relied on Gerald to handle those things and I paid him well for his services. I knew he would be in the office this early as he was always in his office by seven. We discussed my finances for a while before he brought up the proposed purchase of the Katz property.
"Crane, if you intend to pay cash for that property, you're going to have to liquidate some other assets. If you take out a loan to buy it, you could probably get a fairly decent rate."
"What do you think?"
"Well, now that you asked," he laughed. "I do have a suggestion. I've had an inquiry about a 1200 acre piece of land that you own over on the northwest side of town. Nothing definite as yet, but I believe they are seriously interested in it. If they make an offer and we can negotiate a reasonable price, the cash from that sale would pay for the Katz property with plenty left over for other investments."
"Contact the buyer and see if you can get a good price for it. If it doesn't go through in time, I could go the loan route for the Katz property and pay it off early when the other deal closes."
"I should hear something on the Katz property in the next day or two. I'll let you know as soon as I do."
We discussed a few more items before we ended the call. I had just hung up with Gerald, when the phone rang. It was Jack.
"Morning, Crane, I thought I'd give you a quick update on Mason's infiltration of that hateful so called church."
"I hope it's good news."
"Yeah, Mason was accepted with open arms. That red-neck persona that he puts on was really effective. Anyway, he has gathered a good amount of info on the members. There are only about 30 families that are members of the church, according to one of the members he's cultivated. Many of them are older, but a few are in their twenties. About three fourths of them attended services Sunday. They're a motley crew. Mason said he counted 63 people at the service. Most of them are living on the edge of society, subsisting by working menial jobs and food stamps or welfare of some kind. There are a couple of exceptions, like Bob Able and another man named Carson Fry. This guy owns a small auto repair business and appears to make a decent living."
"Your guy has been busy. How in the world did he come up with all that information in such a short amount of time?"
"I told you that Mason was really good. He was one of the best interviewers that SAPD had, as well as their top undercover operative. He can get more information out of people than anyone I've ever seen. He's charming and makes people feel so comfortable with him that they talk freely to him. I'm glad he's on this side of the law, he would make a fantastic con man."
"Well, tell him to keep it up. I want to know as much as possible about each and every one of the church members. I want to know where they live, if they own or rent their homes, their sources of income, and everything else I haven't even thought of. I want to know them better than they know themselves."
"That's going to take a lot of manpower and cost a lot of money. Are you willing to spend that much?"
"Jack, you have a blank check. Just get me that information as quickly as you can. I'll take it from there. As soon as you get any information, fax it to me. Don't wait until you finish. I'll take it piecemeal."
"You're the boss," Jack said, and ended the call.
A knock on my open bedroom door startled me. Connie was standing there. "Is it all right if I start cleaning your bathroom?"
"Of course, Connie, go ahead. How are your girls doing this summer?"
"Fine, they're getting anxious to start back to school. I think they're tired of staying with their grandmother. My mother is a lot stricter with them than I am."
"I thought it was always the other way around. Aren't grandparents supposed to spoil their grandchildren?"
"Not my mother, she makes the girls toe the line. She loves them and would give up her life for them, but that doesn't mean she'd let them get by with anything. And the girls know she loves them."
"Do they like to swim?"
"Yes, but they don't get to very often since we moved here. There was a pool in our subdivision where we lived and I'd take the girls there several times a week. But that was before. Now, our next door neighbor takes them to Landa Park once in a while. I think they've gone a couple of times this summer."
"Why don't you have your mother bring them here once a week or so? They can use the pool. I've been thinking about having David Wilson come back and work with Peter. He taught the other boys how to swim. If we can work out a schedule for him to be here, maybe the girls can come when he's here."
"I don't know..."
"Look, Hildy would love to have some girls here and it would give your mother a break."
"Okay, I guess. Let me know and I'll talk to mom."
Connie went about her cleaning and I called Carlos. I asked him to contact Gerald to work out any contracts for the purchase of the Katz property or the sale of the 1200 acres. The next call I made was to David. He wasn't home, so I left a message on his answering machine for him to call me.
I went to check on the boys. Joel was in his room cramming for the test tomorrow. The twins and Chris were in the music practice room playing their instruments. Chris was making a valiant try using his one good arm and foot pedal. Larry was making reasonable progress on the guitar and Lenny was playing the keyboard without too much hesitation. I listened for a few minutes and then went to find TJ and Peter. I found them on the terrace playing with Bandit. Bandit was paying a lot of attention to Peter and was getting a lot of love in return. I could see where this was leading. The other dogs were resting in the shade on the other part of the terrace. It was getting hot and it was still early.
We were just finishing lunch when the phone rang. It was David Wilson.
"Mr. Johnson, I got your call. What can I do for you?"
"Are you interested in giving swimming lessons?"
"I'm afraid I can't. I'm working full time and when I'm off, Celia has me busy planning our wedding."
"Congratulations, when's the big day?"
"That's great. Do you know of anyone who would be interested in giving lessons?"
"I think my little brother would be interested. Well, he's not that little. In fact he's bigger than I am, but he's three years younger."
"Is he Red Cross certified?"
"Yeah, he's had his life savings certificate for a couple of years."
"What's his name?"
"Have him give me a call."
"He's in the other room. Do you want to talk to him now?"
"Sure, put him on."
In the background, I could hear David calling Ty. A few seconds later a deep baritone voice said, "This is Ty."
I described to him what I had in mind and asked if he were interested in coming once or twice a week for a couple of hours to give Peter swimming lessons and work as lifeguard if other non-family members were present. He readily agreed when I told him how much I would pay him. We arranged for him to come by later this afternoon to check out the pool and to meet the boys.
David came back on the line when Ty and I had finished our conversation. "Thanks, Mr. Johnson, Ty's been kinda bummed out. He wasn't able to get on as lifeguard at Landa this summer. He's just been doing odd jobs to keep busy, but he loves swimming. He's on the high school swim team. He'll do a good job for you."
Ty showed up right at three o'clock. He looked a lot like David, but was a couple of inches taller and built more like a wrestler than a swimmer. I could tell he did some serious weight training. "Wow! This is a great house. It's nothing like what David described."
"That's because the old house burned down while we were on vacation in Orlando. Come with me. I'll show you the pool and have you meet the boys."
"This is a nice pool," Ty said. "I wish we had one this big in our back yard. I'd be in it all the time."
I hollered for the boys. They were playing with their dogs, except for Joel. He was in his room studying. "Hey, guys, I want you to meet Ty Wilson. He's going to come once or twice a week and teach Peter how to swim." Ty shook hands as I introduced each of the boys in turn, ending with Peter, who had maneuvered behind TJ. "This is Peter. He's a little shy."
"Hi, shy guy, do you want to learn to swim?" Ty said, kneeling down so that he was on Peter's level and holding out his hand.
Peter gave a barely noticeable nod of his head, before he carefully reached out his hand from behind TJ to shake Ty's.
The boys went back to playing while Ty and I went back inside for him to meet Connie. I wanted her to be comfortable with him, if her girls would be coming to swim. Their meeting went very well. We decided that Ty would come in the afternoon twice a week on Mondays and Fridays for the rest of the summer and then we would work out a schedule after school began.
"He seems very nice," Connie said, after Ty had left.
"If he's anything like his brother, he'll make a great swim coach for Peter and your girls. You're welcome to have your daughters come both days, if you like. As you heard, he'll be here this Friday."
"I'll talk to mom and let you know. I'm sure the girls would be thrilled to swim twice a week."
"By the way, I don't think I've ever heard you mention your daughters' names."
"Alice is my oldest. She's eight. Joanna is six."
Wednesday morning I woke up Joel before the other boys. I insisted that he have a good breakfast despite him saying he was too nervous. Hildy had fixed him some oatmeal, toast and juice. He ate it, but it was a smaller portion than what he would normally have eaten. After breakfast, while he was getting ready, I got the other boys out of bed and heading for their breakfast. We were on our way to pick up John by eight.
John was waiting on the front step when we drove up. Pauline was there with him. I told her that I would pick the boys up from the school after their test. The information I had was it was supposed to take two hours and I would have John back by around 11:30. She gave her son a hug and told him to do his best. John climbed into the back seat of the BMW with Joel.
As we drove off, they were chattering away about the test and what they expected to be on it. We arrived at the school with about 15 minutes to spare before the test was to begin. I walked into the school with them and approached the desk of the headmaster's secretary. She looked up from what she was doing as we approached.
"Good morning, Mr. Johnson," she said, somewhat to my surprise. Although I had seen her several times when I had come to see Mr. Pierce, I didn't expect her to remember my name. "What may I do for you this morning?"
"Joel and John are here to take an AP test."
"Of course," she said, looking at a piece of paper she picked up from her desk. "They will be in the small conference room down the hall. It's the first door on the right past the trophy display case. Mr. Pilgrim will be administering the test. I believe he's in there. There's one more student to arrive."
I thanked her and we headed for the conference room. Mr. Pilgrim was a fairly young man. I estimated his age around 25. He was also very tall, at least six foot six. He introduced himself as the new guidance counselor and indicated to the boys that if they needed to use the restroom, to do it now. He explained that they would not be allowed to leave the room until they finished the test. Both Joel and John took his advice and headed for the nearest restroom.
We chatted for a moment before a heavyset woman and a young girl entered the room. The girl appeared to be about Joel's age. I learned later from Joel that she was a year younger. He said she was in the grade behind him and that she was really smart.
I left the boys to take the test, telling them I'd be back to pick them up at eleven. There were a few errands I needed to run that would take me almost all of the two hours until I would be back.
It was ten minutes to eleven when I drove back into the Corinthian Academy parking lot. Joel and John had evidently finished the test early because they were waiting outside the front door of the administration building. They had not seen, or noticed me drive in. When I saw them standing there talking earnestly to each other, I drove up to them. They still didn't even look my way until I rolled down my window and spoke to them.
"Hi dad, we didn't see you come in. We're thirsty. Can we stop somewhere and get something to drink?"
"Sure, we can stop at the gas station. I'll fill the car up with gas and you guys can get your drinks." I knew that they would end up with more than something to drink. I was right. I handed Joel a ten dollar bill and they both ran into the convenience store to make their purchases. They came back out before I had finished pumping the gas. Joel was carrying his super sized cup of drink in one hand when he handed me the change; three one dollar bills and some coins. John was carrying his large drink and a plastic bag containing the rest of their booty.
"How was the test?" I asked, as I started the car.
Between them stuffing their mouths with snacks and gulping down their sodas, Joel answered, "It was pretty easy. Easier than I thought it was going to be."
"Yeah," John added. "I think I only missed one question. At least Joel and I got different answers on number 28. I think we got the same on all the rest."
"What did you guys do, memorize the test? Was that what you were doing when I picked you up?"
"Not really," Joel said, ignoring my second question. "Most of the questions were things we studied. The harder ones were where you had to use several concepts to figure out the answers. Those were the ones we remembered."
"Oh," I said. They went back to their snacking and I continued driving toward John's home.
"Thanks, Mr. Johnson," John said, as he and Joel exited the back seat of the car. John took the now trash filled plastic bag with him. He and Joel exchanged hugs, before Joel climbed into the front passenger seat.
"When will you get your test results?" I asked Joel, as we took off for home.
"Mr. Pilgrim said we could call Friday morning and he'd give us our score."
"Remind me in case I forget," I said.
"I will," Joel giggled. "I won't let you forget."
Hildy about had lunch ready when we got home. Joel ran upstairs to change into shorts and a tee shirt and to get ready for lunch. I just shook my head. I didn't see how he could be hungry already, since he and John had eaten all those chips and snack crackers.
I went into my bedroom to change my clothes. I noticed that there were several pages of faxes in the output tray. After changing, I picked up the faxes and went to the sitting area of my bedroom to read them. There were seven pages, all from Jack. The pages were packed with the church members' names, including spouses and children, addresses, housing statuses, occupations of all household members, and other bits of information on at least a third of the congregation. Mason had been a very busy boy. I'll have to meet him sometime.
The information that Jack had faxed me was enough to begin setting my plan into motion. I called Carlos and had him begin setting up a series of corporations and holding companies, all interlocking and controlled by CBJ Properties, but buried so deep it would take the proverbial Philadelphia lawyer to discover who the true owner was.
My next call was to Gerald to get him started on the second part of the plan. His response was, "Crane, you are one dude I wouldn't want to mess with."
"You know the signs you see on the side of the road, Don't Mess With Texas? Well, my motto from now on is, Don't Mess With Crane Johnson or His Family."
"I believe you. I'll get right on this. It shouldn't take too long if the information you've received is accurate. I'll let you know if I run into any stumbling blocks."
"Thanks, Gerald; I know I can count on you."
Roger Burton, my stock broker was the next person on my list to call. After the usual pleasantries were exchanged, I said, "Have you got any hot tips for me today?"
"Just one, I think it's time to dump one of your stocks," he replied, and then mentioned the company.
"I've been wondering about them. It looks like their run is about out of steam. Go ahead and liquidate my position and transfer the proceeds to my brokerage account. I'm going to need some ready cash. How much will I realize?"
"At the latest bid, you'd receive $872,441.83. It could be more or less depending on the price at the time of sale. If you want, I can put in the sell order now. You know you're going to take a big tax hit on your capital gains."
"Yeah, but I'll worry about that come tax time. Maybe my accountant can figure a way to avoid or offset the taxes. Thanks, Roger. Email me the final total as well as the balance of my brokerage account."
By the time I had finished with my calls, the boys had finished their lunch. Hildy was looking out for me and had saved me some.
As I was sitting at the table enjoying a cup of coffee that Hildy had thoughtfully brought to me after my lunch, Connie entered the breakfast room. "Mr. Johnson, the girls were thrilled when I told them about coming here to swim. Mom was even excited. She's heard me describing this house and is dying to see it herself."
"You'll have to give her a tour when she brings the girls. She's welcome to stick around while your girls are here or, if she has something else she wants to do, that's fine as well."
"She'll probably stay with the girls, at least the first couple of times until she's comfortable with everything here."
"Whatever, it's her choice."
While we were talking, TJ came in and slipped under my right arm. I knew he wanted something. When Connie left, I waited to see what he wanted. I wondered how long it would take him to speak.
"Can we... I mean Peter wants to go ride the horses."
"Oh, he does, does he? How about you? Do you want to ride the horses, also?"
"How about your brothers? Do they want to ride, too?"
"Okay, go put on a pair of jeans and tell your brothers to do the same. You can't ride horses in shorts."
Bert and Tracy were mucking out the stables when we arrived. The boys took off for the field where the horses were as soon as they hopped out of the van. When the horses saw them they came to greet their friends. I think they were mainly looking for the sugar cubes that I'd given the boys to give to their horses.
"TJ," I said, "how would you feel about Peter riding Lady and you taking one of the bigger horses?"
At first he frowned, but then smiled and nodded his head. I was going to ride beside Peter to make sure that he was safe. I didn't want him to think he could gallop his horse like the other boys did.
When Tracy noticed our arrival, he leaned his shovel against the wall of the stable and removed his gloves. "Hi, Mr. Johnson, I didn't know you were coming or I'd have the horses saddled."
"No problem. It was a spur of the moment thing. I should have called."
"I'm glad you came. I talked to Charlie Wood, the friend I mentioned when we talked about you buying the Katz farm. He's definitely interested. When I told him there were quarter horses, he went wild. He's coming to visit us on Saturday, just to take a look."
"That's great. I think I should know something by then. The negotiations are almost complete. Unless something comes up, we should have a contract signed by then."
"Charlie said he would be here by eight Saturday. I told him I might still be in my pajamas."
"I don't think we have anything planned, so why don't we plan on coming around ten. I'll see if I can get Hildy to fix us a picnic. I hope the weather holds."
"Great, I'll have Rosie call Hildy so they can coordinate things."
All the while we had been talking, he and Bert were saddling up the horses with the help of the boys. Chris wasn't much help with his arm in a cast, but it didn't prevent him from offering advice to the others.
Peter's eyes were as wide open as they could be when I lifted him onto the saddle of TJ's horse. I mounted my horse while holding onto a lead rope attached to Lady's bridle. I walked our two horses around the field while the others raced all around. Every so often, TJ would come up and talk to Peter, whose smile never disappeared from his lips.
Bert joined us on the last available horse after he and Tracy finished cleaning the stalls. He was just one of the kids. We rode for about 90 minutes before I could see that Peter was getting tired, so was I for that matter. I asked him if he wanted to get something to drink. He nodded his head and we headed back for the stables. We were soon followed by the other boys.
Rosie must have seen us heading back in, because she came out of the back door of the house carrying a platter piled high with brownies. Tracy was right behind her carrying two pitchers of lemonade and paper cups on a tray. Rosie re-entered the house. She returned with Carrie Lucille in her arms. It takes something to tear my sons away from food, but they actually stopped eating and went to take a look at Carrie. I had to admit she was a beautiful baby.
Before we took off for home, the boys went to brush down their horses. I found a small step stool for Peter to stand on and I showed him how to brush his (TJ's) horse. He thought it was fun, but he wasn't able to complete the brushing. Joel finished the job after he had finished with his own horse.
When we arrived home, Marie's car was in front of the house. The boys were out of the van almost before it had come to a complete stop in the garage. As I walked in the back door I heard a high pitched voice yell, "Joel!" and saw Ricky make a running leap into Joel's arms.
"Hi, munchkin, did you miss me?" Joel asked, as he got one of Ricky's sloppy kisses on the cheek.
"Yeah, I miss you," Ricky giggled.
"Okay, guys, as soon as you've said hi to Ricky, off you go to change clothes and wash up. You all smell like a horse," I said. "And so do I." I spoke briefly to Marie and then headed for my bedroom. Ricky insisted on going with Joel.
I did a quick wash and changed into shorts and a polo shirt. As I was about to leave the bedroom, I noticed a couple more faxes in the output tray. They would have to wait until I had some time to review them later.
Hildy had a cup of coffee waiting for me on the table when I entered the breakfast area where she and Marie were sitting. "What brings you here today, Marie?"
"I'd be here every day if Ricky had anything to say about it. The real reason I'm here is to invite everyone to our house on Sunday afternoon. Dirk's anxious to try out his new barbeque grill."
"We'd love to come. I'm anxious to see your new house."
"It's almost completely furnished. A few of the window coverings haven't been delivered yet. The decorator has promised they'll be there on Friday. We'll see."
When it came time for them to leave, Ricky put up a fuss until Joel whispered something in his ear and carried him out the front door. Joel had the magic touch when it came to getting Ricky to do things he didn't want to do. Joel gave him a hug and strapped him into the car seat.
"I wish he'd do that for me," Marie said. "It's like trying to strap in a slippery eel when I try that."
Ricky waved to the boys all the way to the gate and turned onto the road. We all missed not having the little stinker around.
It was after I got the boys all settled into bed before I had time to read the faxes that Jack had sent me. I settled down in the sitting area of my bedroom with a glass of red wine and began to read what Jack had sent. I chuckled evilly to myself as I finished reading.
"This is going to be fun. Those bastards won't know what hit them."