My son, the most caring, loving boy who had suffered through so many horrible situations was on his bed; face down, his body wracked by sobs. Although I didn't as yet know what was causing it, my heart was broken seeing his pain. I walked quickly to his bed and sat down on the edge.
"Joel, son, what's the matter?"
If anything, his sobbing increased in intensity. I put my hand on his back and began to rub it lightly. It took a minute or two of my ministrations, but finally his sobbing began to subside. I remained quiet, waiting for him to gather himself. It seemed like a long time, but it was only a couple of minutes, before he rolled over and into a sitting position.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" I asked, placing one arm around him.
He threw his arms around me and buried his face into my shoulder. I wrapped my other arm around him as well. "It's John ..." he choked out. This brought on a few more sobs. I waited for him to continue, not wanting to upset him further. I had a good idea what was coming. "He ... he broke up with me." This time his sobs shook both of us.
"Son, I'm so sorry," I said. "I know how much it hurts." I paused. "It won't help, but the pain you're feeling now will lessen over time. It may never go away completely."
"But I really loved him."
"I know," I said, patting him on the back.
"I think I loved him since the time he kissed me after gym class. That was three years ago. Now he's got another boyfriend."
"Did he tell you that today?"
"Do you know who this new boy is?"
"He said his name was Leo, a guy he met at his church's youth group. He met him a couple months ago when the guy started going to his church. He said Leo was 18 and had a car."
"I see." I wanted to say more, but I thought better of it.
"He takes him home after the youth group in his car. I wish I was 18 and had a car," Joel said bitterly. His sobbing had stopped by this time.
"If that's this Leo's only attraction, I doubt the relationship will last," I said. "I'm going to suggest something to you and I know it's not going to be easy for you. It would be a terrible thing for you and John not to remain friends despite not being boyfriends anymore. He's the same boy you've known for three years and you're the same boy. You weren't always boyfriends. There was a time when you were just friends. Do you understand what I'm trying to tell you?"
"I guess. I don't know if I can do that, though."
"I said it wasn't going to be easy. You don't hate John, do you?"
"I don't know. I want to, but ..."
"Look, son, I'm not telling you that you have to do what I suggested, but give it some thought. Okay?"
"Okay, I'll think about it."
"Why don't you wash your face and come downstairs? Your brothers were wondering why you didn't have a snack with them."
The boys were outside playing with their dogs when I went downstairs. Hildy looked at me with a questioning look. "He's upset. Boyfriend problems."
"Oh," she said, shaking her head. "Young love can be so painful."
A few minutes later, Joel joined us in the kitchen.
"Hi, hon, would you like a snack?" Hildy asked.
"Could I just have some apple juice, please?"
"Of course. Are you sure you don't want a couple of lemon bars to go with that? I saved you some."
"No, thank you."
As Joel was finishing his apple juice the other boys rushed into the house wanting drinks of water. The dogs had worn them out and they needed to rest for a while. They lined up at the refrigerator with paper cups in hand to wait their turn for the chilled water to be dispensed. I noticed that TJ kept looking towards Joel as he waited for his turn. Downing his cup of water, TJ walked up to where Joel was sitting, kissed him on the cheek and whispered something in Joel's ear. That brought a brief, but faint smile to Joel's lips and he hugged his little brother.
Joel was still not his usual self by the time the boys readied themselves for bed. After I had tucked the others in, I went into Joel's room and sat on the side of his bed. He was propped up in bed reading a text book. I found out later it was in preparation for another credit by exam class. We talked for about twenty minutes. Although I could tell from our conversation that he had not fully adjusted to the breakup with John, he was at least past the crying stage. Knowing this boy that I loved with all my heart, I felt confident that he would soon return to his normal self. Before leaving his room, I kissed his forehead, gently took the textbook from his hands and turned off the lights on my way out.
Making sure the house was closed up for the night; I went to my bedroom with the intention of trying to finish a book that I had started a few days earlier. Finishing my nightly routine, I climbed into bed, propped myself up and opened the book. It was a mystery story by Hillary Waugh titled Last Seen Wearing. It was part of the collection of books that I had purchased. Even though it was written about 45 years ago, it was still a fascinating read. I was three pages from the end of the book when the phone rang. I wondered who could be calling at this late hour. It was just after eleven.
"Crane? It's Eric."
"I thought maybe you had fallen into the ocean since I hadn't heard from you," I said.
"Well, we have been to the ocean," Eric replied. "But it is damned cold, I'll tell you. I know I should have called you sooner, but it seemed like I never had the time. Now we are settled into the new house and things are getting back to normal."
"How does JR like living in California? How's the new job?"
"It was quite an adjustment for JR. Now he really likes his new school and he's made a few friends. There are several his age in the neighborhood where we live. He's playing soccer in the youth league and he likes that. Being within driving distance to Bran has made his adjustment much easier, as well. The job is going great. The work is exciting and challenging. It's a lot different being in a management position as opposed to being more hands on, but I'm adjusting. Raj is a great guy to work for and the money he's paying me is also great."
"How's Bran doing?"
"I'm so proud of him. He's maintaining straight A's in all of his classes. JR and I go visit him at least one day every weekend that JR isn't playing soccer. Bran and Elijah have become good friend."
"Who's this Elijah?"
"We met him when we were out here buying Bran's condo. He lives a couple of blocks away. They go jogging or bike riding together. I don't know if there's a romantic relationship. From what I can tell, it's just a friendship. I think Bran still thinks of Shane as his boyfriend. I know they talk on the phone a lot."
Over the next half hour we caught up on each other's lives. We ended the call with Eric inviting us to come visit them sometime. I laughed and told him I didn't think he would have room for the whole family in his three bedroom house. After hanging up the phone, I immediately entered their new phone number in my phone list.
Tuesday morning Joel was nearly back to his old self, but I could still detect sadness in his eyes. I drove the boys to school and as I was parking the van, I saw Pauline parking her car and letting John and his sisters out. I decided to go say 'hello' to her. She was giving her girls a hug as I walked up to her car.
"Good morning, Pauline," I said.
"Oh, good morning, Crane. How are you and the boys?"
"We're doing fine, except for Joel."
"Oh? What's the matter with him?"
"I guess John didn't tell you. He and Joel are not as close as they were."
"That's putting their relationship diplomatically," Pauline said. "John didn't say anything about it to me."
"It seems John has a new friend named Leo."
"Leo?" she said with an astonished look on her face. "But he's a freshman in college. That can't be."
"That's what Joel told me. He's quite upset."
"If that's true, I'll be upset, too."
"Speaking of relationships, how are you and the doctor getting along?"
"He works so much that we don't get to see each other very often. We're still at the friendship stage."
"Have you met his kids?"
This question elicited a frown and a somewhat startled expression before she answered. "I wasn't aware he had any children."
"A friend told me he had a daughter in college and a son in high school."
"I'll have to ask Walter when I see him on Friday evening."
"Pauline, I may be stepping out of line, but I learned something else about Dr. Kohler."
"He's still married."
"That son-of-a-bitch," she said, and climbed into her car and took off without even saying goodbye.
I'm not sure I should have told Pauline about Walter, but it was done and couldn't be undone. I headed for home intending on making a few phone calls. As I walked into the kitchen, Hildy handed me a phone message. It was from Darin Bain, the Philadelphia lawyer looking into the trust. That was one of the calls I had planned.
"By the way," I said, "how are Mary's Maids working out in your opinion? Yesterday was the second time they have been here."
"So far, so good," she replied. "That young guy who came with them yesterday moved all the furniture so they could clean under it. The next time they come, they said, they'll wash all the windows on the inside. The following week they'll do the outside windows they can reach without getting on a ladder."
"Great, let me know if they don't meet your expectations."
I settled down at my desk in the library and returned Darin's call. It took a while to get through first the receptionist and then his secretary before I was able to speak to him. "Darin, Crane Johnson, sorry I missed your call. I was taking the boys to school."
"Not a problem. I keep forgetting about the time difference. Anyway, it's my place to apologize. I was wrapped up in court for the last week. I had meant to call you with the information I received from David Cole, the auditor looking into that trust. His first impression of the actions of the trustees over the years was correct. They had been systematically misappropriating the assets of the trust. Large loans were made to members of the Bollinger family and had never been repaid nor had any interest on those loans been paid. The loan documents clearly stated the terms of those loans and the interest rates. It's a wonder that there was any money in the trust figuring the management fee and the unpaid loans. The only thing that prevented it was the investment strategy they used up until recently was very aggressive and the annual return on investments averaged somewhere in the mid to upper teens."
"Does the auditor have any estimate as to what the trust should be worth if these misappropriations hadn't occurred?" I asked.
"An exact number is impossible to calculate. There are too many variables. David has given me a range of values. Based on page after page of spreadsheets and using a number of different assumptions, he has said that the minimum value of the trust would be a little over $38 million. The top value would be nearly triple that at $103 million."
"Wow! That's considerably more than the $5 million Bollinger quoted us. What is your best guess as to what the bank would be willing to settle for?"
"They're going to squeal like a stuck pig when we present them with these numbers. However, my guess is that they will want to settle quietly so as not to have any bad publicity. Taking them to court in a civil trial, I would ask for the maximum and I think I could convince a jury to award that much, plus attorney fees. We could probably make a good case that the maintenance fees that they charged were unreasonable and ask for rebate of a portion of them. Realistically, I think they will be willing to cough up something in the neighborhood of $60 to $65 million. That's about the halfway point between the high and low estimates."
"I'll talk to the other two parties and get back to you with what our decision is," I said, before hanging up.
The first call I made was to Carla Wilcox. I explained to her what Darin had told me. She was overjoyed at the prospects of that much more money. I got her consent for the actions that I thought would have the best chance of success. With the promise that I would keep her informed of any progress, we hung up.
My next call was to Jayden Browning. I went through the same explanation with him that I did with Carla. His reaction was even more enthusiastic and exuberant than hers was. He agreed with my plan of action and I told him I would keep him informed as things developed.
Since I didn't need the money that I would derive from the trust, I decided to set up a trust of my own that would provide to the foundation the earnings from its investments. With any luck, it would provide a steady source of income for the foundation. I called Gerald to check on any tax implications and then called Carlos to begin setting up the legal framework for the trust. Carlos said he would have the outline of the new trust set up in a few days. I told him it would probably be a few weeks or a few months before there was any settlement with the bank. I then asked him if he had heard anything from the drugstore chain that had shown interest in purchasing the strip center I owned. He indicated that he hadn't heard from their representative recently, but thought they were still interested.
I had been so busy on the phone that I was surprised when Hildy brought my lunch to the library. "Thanks, Hildy, you're too good to me. Won't you join me in a cup of coffee?" I said, noting the pot of coffee on the tray.
"Thanks, but I've got a couple of angel food cakes in the oven that are about due to come out. I'm sure the boys would not appreciate it if I burned them," she laughed, and headed back to the kitchen.
I made one more phone call to Darin Bain to inform him that the three of us had agreed to seek the $60 to $65 million figure that he thought the bank would go for. He said he would approach the president of the bank first thing in the morning. He didn't expect that they would agree immediately. They would have to consult their attorneys before they could agree to any settlement. That could take some time depending on how anxious they were to avoid litigation.
Joel seemed much more like his old self when I picked the boys up from school. John was nowhere in sight as he walked out of the school building with a boy and girl. He waved goodbye to them and climbed into his normal place in the front passenger seat. I smiled at him and he smiled back.
After the boys had changed out of their school uniforms and enjoyed the fresh fruit salad that Hildy had prepared for their snack, they all went outside to play with the dogs. I went out to watch them. Peter and TJ were playing fetch with Bandit. The only problem was no matter which one of them threw the stick, Bandit always brought it back to TJ. After a while Peter stopped throwing the stick and stood watching TJ and Bandit play. When he saw me, he walked over to where I was sitting and climbed onto my lap. He didn't say anything, just sat there hugging my arms to his chest. He let out a couple big sighs.
"Am I ever gonna get a puppy?" he almost whispered.
"What kind of puppy do you want?" I asked.
"A little one, like me."
"How would you like to go to the animal shelter on Saturday morning while your brothers are having their music lessons?"
"Are they really my brothers?"
"If you want them to be and the judge says it's okay," I said, realizing that I had committed myself to raising another boy.
"Yeah," he said, twisting around in my lap so that he could look into my face. "And I can have a puppy, too?"
I gave him a squeeze and a kiss on the forehead as an answer.
"I gotta go tell TJ," he said, scrambled down off my lap and ran to where TJ and Bandit were wrestling. A few moments later, I had both of them in my lap.
"Thanks, dad," TJ said, kissing me on the cheek. "You're the greatest dad in the world."
"You're a pretty neat kid yourself. All of you are," I said, as Bandit tried to climb onto my lap as well. TJ picked him up and as another 'thank you' I got my chin washed by Bandit's tongue. "You're a neat dog, too."
I hadn't bothered to check Joel's homework for some time now. He was so conscientious about doing his homework that I didn't feel the need to check up on him. With the younger boys it was a way to have a few minutes alone with each of them. Although the twins were twelve, each one still sat on one of my knees while I checked the homework. It was the same with Chris. Although Peter rarely had homework, he took the opportunity to sit on my lap and I would ask him about his day at school. He was always anxious to tell me all about what had happened.
After the other boys were settled into bed and I had tucked them in for the night, I stopped by Joel's bedroom. He was sitting up in bed with the same text book he had been studying the night before. I took a seat at his desk facing him. "How are you feeling, son?"
"I'm okay," he replied.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I thought about what you said last night."
"You were right. I decided to talk to John and tell him that we could still be friends."
"What did he say?"
"He didn't believe me at first. I guess my reaction yesterday to his telling me he had found another boyfriend made him skeptical. But we talked and I think he believes me now."
"The question is, do you believe it?"
"Yes, but it's not easy. I like John too much to cut him out of my life permanently."
"Good for you, son, you make me proud of you more each day. Now, how much longer are you going to be reading that textbook?"
"Another thirty minutes, if that's okay?"
"Thirty minutes and then lights out. Good night, son. I love you."
"Goodnight, dad. I love you, too."
Friday turned out to be a busy day. I had just returned from taking the boys to school when Darin Bain called. The bank officers had made an offer of $45 million to settle the claim provided we signed non-disclosure agreements concerning the banks actions. I told Darin that I would relay the offer to the other parties, but would recommend that they not accept it. I planned to recommend that we not accept any settlement less than $60 million. I waited until I thought Jayden would be awake before having the operator set up a conference call with him, Carla and me. I explained to them the offer of settlement and what I suggested we counter with. After some discussion and a suggestion from me that they both contact a tax lawyer to help them mitigate the amount that Uncle Sam would want as his share, we were in agreement. I called Darin back and told him of our decision.
After lunch, I received a call from Fenton Bigelow, the real estate broker in Las Vegas. With the usual formalities out of the way he got down to business. "Everything is a go on both properties. We've established clear title and the land surveys have been completed. It will take a couple of days to get the paperwork prepared. If you can make it to Vegas as early as next Wednesday, you could close on both properties."
"That's cutting it close, that being the day before Thanksgiving. Plane reservations would be impossible since that's the busiest travel day of the year. See if you can postpone everything until the next Wednesday. My boys will be back in school and the holiday rush of travelers will have subsided."
"You're right, of course. I hadn't considered your travel arrangements. I'm sure it will be no problem to change the closing date. It will give the title company more time to get all the paperwork completed. The closer I work with was going to do a rush job for me. I bring her a lot of business."
"Good, I'll make plans to fly out there as early as possible and then fly back in the afternoon. I don't want to be away from the boys overnight if I can avoid it. Thanks for your help, Fenton. Let me know if there are any changes in plans."
I went to the kitchen to pour myself a cup of coffee when the phone rang. It was Phillip Brown, one of my apartment managers. He called to update me on the happenings with the three complexes. His report was very favorable. Overall the occupancy rate was 93% with the complex on Stone Oak at 98%. He suggested a few renovations to one of the properties and I agreed, telling him to go ahead and do what he and his partner, Chuck Solaris, thought was necessary to maintain the properties in the best possible rentable condition.
I thought I might get a few minutes to read some more of a book I started after finishing the mystery story earlier in the week. That was not to be. Carlos called. He wanted to discuss placing all of the properties I owned under one umbrella company. The apartments were held by CBJ Properties as was the land and building that was going up on highway 281. The parcels of land in northwest Bexar County were held under various company names as was the land on 46 and the strip center property.
"Crane, I've been thinking about proposing this to you for some time. What brought it to a head was when Fenton called wanting to know all the particulars for purchasing the Las Vegas properties. If we go ahead and consolidate all your properties, then the Solaria property would be held under CBJ Properties. Now, as to the 1600 acre Granger property, I'd suggest that the Nevada corporation I've set up hold title to it. CBJ Development, LLC would be a subsidiary of the main company, CBJ Properties."
"Sounds like a good idea. We'd still have all those other company names you've set up in case I wanted to use them at a later date. I'd say to go ahead and do it. This won't have any tax consequences, will it?"
"No, I've already checked with Gerald. It'll take a few days to get everything finalized," Carlos said. "I'll let you know when to come in and sign all the papers."
I had to hurry to get to the school in time to pick up the boys. For mid November, the day had turned out very warm with temperatures in the upper 80's. As soon as the boys had finished their snacks, they wanted to go swimming. I thought that was an excellent idea. I sent them to change and I went to do the same. We had a great time in the pool. Peter was getting much more confident in the water and could swim the length of the pool and back without any trouble. Of course we all kept an eye on him so that he didn't get into any trouble. Dusk was rapidly approaching by the time Hildy came out and announced that supper would be ready in twenty minutes. That gave us just enough time to shower and get ready to eat.
Saturday morning after breakfast, Peter hung around me and didn't go play with the other boys. It wasn't long before Mrs. Shultz arrived to start the music lessons. Usually Peter would go to the music room and watch the others while their lessons were in progress. Today he crawled up onto my lap.
"Are we gonna go get a puppy like you promised?" he asked.
"Certainly," I said. "Let's go tell Hildy we're going to be gone for a while." He was off my lap in a flash and half way to the kitchen before I was able to get out of the chair. By the time I reached the kitchen, he was already telling Hildy where we were going. She looked at me and I nodded my head. "We should be back in a couple of hours. It all depends on how long it takes him to find the right dog."
He climbed into the back seat and settled himself in the booster seat before I was able to get in the driver's seat of the BMW. I had put the booster seat in the car last night as well as a dog carrier in the trunk. The seat was usually in the van. All the way to the animal shelter he kept up a constant chatter about the kind of dog he wanted and how he was going to play with it. All I had to do was smile and nod my head every once in a while to keep him going.
The shelter was just opening as we arrived. I explained to the lady at the front desk what he was interested in. She called a young man named Chad to help us. He took us back to where the dogs were housed. Most of the dogs were full grown and larger than what Peter was interested in. As we were approaching the last few cages, Peter stopped and stared into one of them.
"Can I hold that one?" he asked.
Chad unlocked the cage and picked up the young puppy. "This is the last one of a litter brought in early last week. He was the smallest one. He's a mixed breed, but from appearances there's a lot of Cocker Spaniel blood in him," Chad told me.
He handed the puppy to Peter who hugged it to his chest. The puppy's tail was wagging so hard that his hind quarter was wagging with it. Peter sat down on the floor with the puppy still in his arms. In appreciation, the puppy gave Peter's face and neck a tongue bath, which brought a giggle from him.
"I guess we have found the one," I said to Chad. "Has it been neutered?"
"Yes, he has all his shots and is ready to be adopted. If you're sure this is the one, I'll go get the papers started. You can come to the desk and take care of everything in a few minutes," Chad said.
"Come along, Peter, let's take your puppy home," I said, after signing all the paperwork and paying the fees. He hadn't let the puppy out of his arms since Chad handed it to him. He wanted to hold his new pet in the car, but I insisted that it be put into the carrier. I did strap the carrier on the seat beside Peter with one of the seatbelts, after first putting down a double layer of towels under the carrier to soak up any accidents that might happen.
"What are you going to name your new pet?" I asked.
Peter paused for a minute before answering. "My teacher read us a story about a dog named Duke. Can I name him that?"
"If that's what you want. I think that's a great name for him. Duke it is."
All the way home, Peter once again kept up a constant chatter. This time it was aimed at Duke and not me.