"Spill it, Carlos. Don't keep me in suspense."
"I hardly know where to begin. Okay, the owners of the strip center where the church is located jumped at the chance to unload it. They took the offer to break even and avoid foreclosure. They want to close on the property by the end of the week, if we can get everything ready by that time."
"Great," I said. "As soon as I own it, I want the eviction notice served on that church within an hour of closing."
"You've got it. My pleasure. Next, Carson Fry's business was shut down by the city. He had all kinds of violations of city ordinances. His neighbors had complained many times to the city's code compliance department about all the junk cars and other trash on the property, but they'd been ignored. I just happened to have an acquaintance on the city council. When I got no response from code compliance, I happened to mention it to Rico. He's a good guy. He drove by Fry's place and nearly blew his stack. Ten minutes later he was in the code compliance office making it very clear that he wanted someone at the site immediately. Rico drove back to Fry's place and waited. Four inspectors showed up within minutes and went through the property and wrote dozens of citations. When they saw the stack of batteries, Rico said the inspector went ballistic and immediately used his cell phone to call TCEQ. According to Rico the fines for violation of city ordinances will run into the thousands of dollars. The state will be after Fry as well. He didn't have a current sales tax permit, which probably means that he hasn't been sending any money to the state. That could lead to a hefty fine and possibly some jail time, it all depends on how long this has been going on. Perhaps the feds should be notified to see if he has been filing his federal income taxes."
"That's probably a good idea. If you end up being the whistleblower on him, you could be in for a cut of his unpaid taxes. Just be sure to deduct that from my bill," I laughed.
"Well, that's one down. How about Bob Able?"
"He received a few violations from the city, but nothing serious. He was given 15 days by the city to clean up his property. His code violation will cost him a few hundred, maybe a thousand dollars. Rico went to high school with him and heard that he's filing for divorce. Rico's wife and Able's wife belong to some sort of garden club. Pattie, that's Rico's wife, hears all the gossip."
"That could solve part of the problem. I think Able's wife was the instigator for him leaving the church that Hildy and Manfred attend. I'd still like to see if there is any other kind of pressure we can put on him, just in case."
"I'll keep looking. It hasn't been that long since we started all of this," Carlos said.
"I know," I said. "You've done a great job. Thanks."
I had hardly put the phone down when it rang. "Mr. Johnson, this is Peggy Callahan. I'm Peter's caseworker. I apologize for not getting with you earlier, but I've been tied up with a really nasty case of abuse. You'll probably read about it in the papers tomorrow."
"Ms. Callahan, what can I do for you?"
"I need to speak with Peter before the hearing tomorrow. I'd like to stop by this afternoon, if that's all right."
"That'd be fine. Could you make it sometime around one? Peter has his swimming lesson at two with the other kids."
"I'll be there at one," she said, and ended the call.
That conversation jogged my memory and I picked up the phone and called Corinthian Academy. I reached the receptionist and asked to speak with Mr. Pierce. When she asked what my business was, I told her I wanted to enroll a new student. She suggested that I should speak with the guidance counselor. I thanked her for her suggestion, but I insisted on speaking with Justin Pierce.
"I'm sorry, sir, Mr. Pierce is very busy..."
"Tell Mr. Pierce that Crane Johnson, one of the school's major note holders, is on the line and would like to speak to him."
"Very well, I'll see if he'll talk to you," she said sarcastically.
A few moments later Headmaster Pierce came on the line. "Mr. Johnson, forgive my temporary secretary. She's filling in while my secretary is attending a funeral for her sister in Wisconsin. The temp didn't know who you were."
"That's okay," I said, and then went on to explain what I wanted.
"No problem, Mr. Johnson, I'll have the secretary fax you all the forms as soon as we hang up."
With that taken care of, I went to the music room to see how the lessons were progressing. I was a little surprised when I saw Peter sitting at the keyboard receiving a lesson from Mrs. Shultz. Joel saw me and just smiled. The others were too busy watching intently as Peter picked out a tune. When he finished and received a compliment from his teacher, his smile was radiant. I left the room with a lump in my throat.
Hildy was sitting at the kitchen island talking to Gilda when I returned. "How are you feeling today," I asked.
"Much better, thanks. There's hardly any pain unless I do something that stretches my stomach. I should be back to normal in a couple of days," Hildy replied.
"Yeah, she's definitely feeling better," Gilda snickered. "She's trying to tell me how to cook."
"Well, momma always said you were a dark brown cook," Hildy shot back. "Everything she cooked always turned out to be a little bit burned."
Despite the good natured jibe that Hildy had given Gilda, lunch turned out to be great and not the least burned.
Peggy Callahan arrived at the front gate right on time. I had forgotten to let the security guard know to expect her. He buzzed the house and I gave him the okay to let her in and told him to add her to the authorized persons list. While she was on her way to the house, I rounded up Peter and headed for the front door. We were not alone. Five other boys followed us to the door.
"I didn't expect a reception committee," Ms. Callahan said, getting out of her car.
"Welcome to our home," I said. "Please come in out of the heat. I'll introduce everyone once we're inside." I introduced my sons first, saving Peter for the last.
"You have quite a family," she said. "Peter, I'd like to talk to you for a minute. Would that be all right?"
Peter shrugged and preceded her into the library that I indicated she could use. TJ started to follow them, but I stopped him.
"But, dad..." TJ began.
"No, son, Ms. Callahan needs to talk to Peter alone." I ushered the other boys back into the family room to wait for Peter to emerge from the library. All but TJ, that is. He parked himself on the bottom step of the stairs. He had become so protective of Peter. It reminded me a lot of Joel and TJ when they first came to live with me.
It wasn't long before Mrs. Gundersen and Connie's two girls arrived for the swimming lessons. They were followed closely by Marie and Ricky. TJ barely said hi to them and remained sitting on the step staring at the door to the library. When the door started to open, he was off the step and to the door before it had fully opened. He immediately put his arm around Peter and led him away.
"TJ, take Peter upstairs and you two put on your swimsuits. Ty should be here any time."
"Mr. Johnson, could I talk to you for a moment?" Peggy Callahan asked. She turned and went back into the library. I followed her in and closed the door behind us. When we were settled in the chairs, she continued. "Peter seems to be adjusting to being here quite well."
"Yes," I said. "At first it was a little strained. He got along with the boys from the start. It took a couple of weeks, I guess, before he was comfortable with me. He seemed almost to be afraid of me. From the report that I got from Theresa Shannon, it indicated that his father may have been abusive to him. However, he seems to have gotten over that fear and now appears to be comfortable with me."
"I got the same impression from talking to him. Now the big question," she said. "Are you willing to continue to foster him until a suitable placement is found?"
"The answer is yes," I said. "My sons and I, and especially TJ, are very fond of Peter. They would be very disappointed if he had to leave. What have you found out about the uncle?"
"Not a lot as of yet," she said. "The investigation and home study have not been completed. That will probably take another two to three weeks."
"Can you tell me his name?"
"Sorry, I thought you had that information. His name is Gary Wright. He and his family live just outside of College Station. He works as a maintenance man at the university there. His wife works at a local elementary school in the lunch room."
"What about their child? How old is it? I don't recall whether it's a boy or girl."
"Their child is a girl. She's eleven and suffers from Muscular Dystrophy."
"That's sad. What's her prognosis?"
"From what I've seen, it's not too good. She's given two, maybe three years at most."
"I'm so thankful that my sons are healthy," I said. "I can see why the uncle was hesitant about taking on another child. Do you think the court would award Peter to Wright?"
"I sincerely doubt it given his reluctance, but stranger things have happened," she said. "Well, I need to get going. I have another visit with one of my cases in about half an hour. I'll see you at the hearing tomorrow."
As I was seeing Peggy to her car, Ty arrived. "Hi, Mrs. Callahan," he said, when he saw her. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to see Peter. Are you the swim teacher?"
"Yeah, it's a lot of fun. I wish we had a pool like this one. When's Calvin getting home? It's this week isn't it?"
"He should be home Friday. Gotta run. Why don't you come over Friday evening? We're having a barbeque to celebrate his return? About six?"
"Great, I'll be there."
Ty was surrounded by the kids the moment he walked in the house. Alice took hold of his arm and looked up adoringly at him. That girl has a serious crush on him. I could see why. Ty was an extremely handsome young man.
Hildy, Marie, Mrs. Gundersen and I sat on the back terrace and watched Ty and the kids in the pool. We were joined for a few minutes from time to time by Gilda or Connie. I continued to be amazed at how well all the kids responded to Ty.
As Ty was leaving he told me that next Monday was the last time he could come for the lessons. His school started on the following Wednesday. I thought about asking him if he could come on Saturdays, but with the boys wanting to go riding and other activities, it might be overload.
Before sending the boys off to get ready for bed later that evening, I sat them down and explained what was going to happen in court tomorrow morning as much as I knew. I told them to dress in their dark blue pants and white shirts and that we had to be ready to leave early to be at the court at nine. I also let Gilda know that we would need to have breakfast early.
I wasn't surprised as I left my bedroom the next morning to see Hildy dressed and ready to accompany us to court.
"You know I couldn't let that sweet boy go to court without me, don't you?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. "He does have a way of working his way into your heart." I poured myself a cup of coffee and started up the stairs to begin waking the boys. There was some complaining from Chris and the twins about having to get up so early, but when I told them they could stay home instead of going to court with Peter, they scrambled out of bed without further complaints.
We were fortunate to find a parking space around the corner from the court house annex where the hearing would be held. With one last caution to the boys to be very quiet when we were inside the courtroom, the seven of us took off for the hearing. Hildy and Manfred parked their car down the street from our van and joined us as we made our way toward the entrance of the annex. The boys got a lot of admiring looks as we waited for the elevator to take us to the third floor where the courtrooms were. I had to admit they did look nice all dressed alike.
I didn't see Peggy Callahan when we exited the elevator nor did I see Peter's lawyer, Hal Brisbane. I noticed a bailiff outside one of the courtroom so I walked up to him and asked which courtroom the family court was being held. He indicated the one behind where he was standing, but said it would be a few minutes before the doors would be opened. Walking back to where the boys and Hildy were standing, I asked where Manfred was. Hildy said he had gone to the restroom.
"That's a good idea. Boys let's find the restroom. It may be a while before we can leave the courtroom once the hearings start." The men's restroom on the third floor of the courthouse annex was quite small. There were three urinals and two toilet stalls. It took a while to get everyone taken care of along with a lot of laughing. The urinals were too high for TJ and Peter to use, so we had to wait until the toilets were available before they could take care of their needs.
By the time everyone had their hands washed and we left the restroom, Hal Brisbane was standing with Hildy and Manfred. We were soon joined by Peggy Callahan.
"According to the docket," she said, handing me a copy, "your case is third in line."
"How long do you think it will take for the two in front of us?"
"It's hard to say. Neither of them is one of my cases. They're placement review hearings which usually don't take that much time. They are formalities that are mandated by state law to be held every six months to ensure that the foster child is in an appropriate setting and is receiving all services that he needs. If everybody is present when the case is called, they will probably take no more than ten minutes each."
"How long will our case take?"
"I would estimate less than twenty minutes," she said. "I see the doors are open. You and your group need to find seats. It looks like it's going to be crowded today from the looks of the docket."
The seven of us plus Hildy and Manfred completely filled one bench in the gallery. We were fortunate to get the front row so there was no one in front of us except for the lawyers. It was about five minutes later when the bailiff came in through a side door.
"All rise, the 207th District Court is now in session. The Honorable Martha Bono presiding."
A woman in a black robe, who appeared to be in her fifties, entered through the door behind the bailiff and took her seat. "You may be seated." She began running through the docket to see if everybody was present for their particular cause. Everybody was for the first one, but one of the lawyers was missing for the second. All were present for our cause.
It took a good twenty minutes for the housekeeping details to be completed before Judge Bono called the first cause on the docket. By this time the boys were beginning to fidget. I hoped that it wouldn't take too long before we were called. It wasn't.
"Cause number C1998-247C in the interest of Peter Johansen, a request by the Department1 for Temporary Managing Conservatorship," the judge announced.
It took a few minutes before we were assembled in front of the judge's bench. TJ insisted on holding on to Peter's hand and accompanying us to our position. I don't think he could have gotten his hand loose from Peter's if he had wanted to.
"Announce," Judge Bono said.
"Kathy Clark, attorney for the Department."
"Peggy Callahan, caseworker for the Department."
"Crane Johnson, foster parent for Peter."
I put my hand on Peter's shoulder and whispered, "Tell the judge your name."
In a voice barely above a whisper he said, "Peter Johansen."
I tapped TJ on the shoulder and he said in full voice, "TJ Johnson."
"Hal Brisbane, attorney for Peter Johansen."
The judge raised her right hand and said, "If you're not a lawyer, raise your right hand." When she saw that we all had raised our hands, she continued. "Do you swear the testimony that you give to this court to be the truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?"
We all said, "I do," and the hearing began.
"Mr. Brisbane, are you retained by Peter Johansen?" the judge asked.
"Yes, Your Honor."
"Is your work pro bono?"
"No, Ma'am. My services are being paid for by Mr. Johnson. However, young Mr. Johansen did give me my original retainer."
Turning to me, Judge Bono said, "Mr. Johnson, I understand that you have five adopted sons. Is that correct?"
"Yes, Your Honor. TJ here is my youngest."
"Are those your other sons in the front row back there?"
"Yes, Your Honor."
"Didn't they want to come up here with Peter?"
"Yes, but I thought it might cause too much confusion. TJ insisted."
"You're probably correct. Now, Ms. Callahan, I have read the request from the Department for Temporary Managing Conservatorship of Peter Randall Johansen. Where are the parents?"
"The last known whereabouts for them was in Victoria where they were arrested on a warrant charging child abandonment. They have been released on bail, but we have been unable to contact them since. At such time as we are able to locate them, we will be filing a motion with the court for Permanent Managing Conservatorship."
"I see. Are there any close relatives that he can be placed with?"
"We have identified only one possible candidate, an uncle. The home study has not been completed yet. It is also uncertain if the uncle would be willing to take Peter if the home was found to be satisfactory."
"Where do you propose to have Peter live?"
"Mr. Johnson has agreed to have Peter live with him and his family."
"Mr. Johnson, is that correct?"
"Yes, Your Honor, it is."
"Is this going to create a problem for you? You have five other sons to take care of. How are you going to manage?"
"No, Your Honor, it will not be any problem at all. I have a wonderful woman and her husband who live in our house. She takes care of all of us."
"And just who are these people?"
"Hildy and Manfred Strasser. They are sitting in the front row with my other sons."
"Ms. Clark, what are the Department's views of Mr. Johnson having temporary custody of this young man?"
"Your Honor, any child would be extremely lucky to live in Mr. Johnson's household."
"I see," the judge said. "Peter, do you like living with Mr. Johnson?"
"Uh huh. I like living with TJ."
"What do you like about living with TJ?"
"I got a nice bed and I get to ride a horse and swim and play with Bandit and play on the piano and lots of toys and nobody hits me and... and..."
"Very well, I'm going to approve the Department's request for TMC with the stipulation that Peter's current placement not be changed without my prior approval. Is there anything else from the Department?"
"No, Your Honor," Peggy Callahan replied.
"No, Your Honor."
"No, Your Honor."
"In that case, the next hearing is set for 90 days from today, unless something comes up that needs immediate attention. My clerk will give you the exact date. Thank you."
TJ was all smiles as he led Peter back to his brothers. Peter received hugs from all of them while I tried to usher them out of the courtroom.
"What did she say?" Hildy asked. "We couldn't hear most of what was going on."
"It boils down to Peter will be with us for at least the next 90 days," I said.
"I'm hungry," Chris said when we exited the courthouse.
"Naegelin's Bakery2 is just on the other side of the traffic circle," Hildy offered. "It's the oldest bakery in Texas. They've been in business since the 1860's. I know the owners. Manny and I will go over there and get one of their fabulous apple strudels and bring it home."
"How come you know so much about them?" I asked.
"I told you once that I worked in a bakery as a young girl. That's the one."
"I'd forgotten. We'll meet you at home. Come along, boys."
Although they complained about having to wait until they got home for their treat, it was worth the wait. I think it was the best apple strudel I had ever tasted. The thing looked huge when Manfred carried it into the house when they got home. It looked to be over two feet long and had to weigh at least four pounds, if not more. There was nothing but crumbs left after everybody got their fill.
We were finishing lunch when the phone rang. It was for Joel. He spoke for a minute and then turned to me. "Dad, can you take me to Rebecca Creek to play golf?"
"Sure, what time do you need to be there?"
"Gene has a tee time at 1:34."
I looked at my watch. "We'd better get going, if we plan on getting there on time."
Joel spoke on the phone for another minute before he asked, "Do you want to play with us? His dad's going to play."
"I guess. I haven't played in some time, but why not?"
We got to the course with about 15 minutes to spare before the tee time. Joel introduced me to his friend, Gene Marcos, who in turn introduced us to his dad, Tiny Marcos. I had to assume that Tiny was a nickname, because he was a very large man, standing several inches over my six foot height.
Tiny was an affable man and we got along very well. I found out he owned a large car dealership. He kept our group in stitches as he told one funny story after another. Joel's and Gene's games were well matched. My game was rusty and I didn't play up to my expectations, but I enjoyed the round because of the company. Tiny's game was erratic. He would birdie one hole and triple bogey the next. I wasn't keeping Joel's score, but I knew he was playing well.
On the way home I asked him, "What did you shoot?"
"73? You beat me by 8 strokes!"
"I know," he giggled.
"Don't you know you're supposed to let me win?"
"You did good. I think you're ready for the golf team tryouts. I'm proud of you, son."
Wednesday it seemed like I spent the entire day on the road driving first Chris to Dr. Greene's office where the cast was removed from his arm. Later that afternoon I had to take Joel to Dr. Adams office for his appointment. After the appointment, Dr. Adams said he wanted to see Joel one more time and we arranged a time for next Tuesday at 2:00.
I had just settled into my chair after supper and opened one of the books I bought a week or so ago when the phone rang. It was Eric calling from California. "How's the condo coming along?" I asked after we had exchanged greetings.
"More work than I anticipated. We have most of the essentials, if not actually in place, then scheduled to be delivered soon. The important things like beds are all set up, so at least we can sleep in the place tonight. It's going to be a nice place when we finish," Eric said.
"How's Bran? Do you think he'll be homesick when you leave?"
"He hasn't shown any signs of it so far. I think he's too excited at this point for it to sink in that he's going to be here all alone when we leave on Saturday. He's at a freshman orientation activity right now. I know JR and I will definitely be homesick for him."
We talked for fifteen or twenty more minutes before we ended the call. I picked up my book and had read a couple of pages when the phone rang again. I wondered who this could be calling and interrupting my reading.
"Hello, may I speak to Crane Johnson?"
"I'm Crane Johnson."
"My name is Bob Able."
1 Department as used in the hearing is the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, also known as CPS.
2 Naegelin's Bakery is an actual business. The apple strudel is one of their specialties. See www.naegelins.com
Author's note: The hearing described for Peter is an accurate portrayal of what could actually happen in the family court, at least in Comal County, Texas. One thing that has always seemed strange to me is that the lawyers involved in the hearings don't have to swear to tell the truth.