When Dr. Sam and Carol arrived early for Christmas dinner, Peter looked at him for a long time, tilting his head from side to side much the way Duke does.
"Peter, do you remember Dr. Sam?" I asked.
"I guess," he said. "How come your name's the same as Joel's dog?"
That caused Sam to laugh so hard it brought tears to his eyes. "Well," he finally answered, "I don't know. My name was Sam a long time before Joel's dog was born."
Peter still looked quizzically at Sam, but finally, he shrugged his shoulders and went back to playing with his new toys. Carol was carrying a large baking dish which she immediately took to the kitchen before greeting the boys. She and Hildy must have agreed on what she was going to bring the night before.
I was surprised that Peter didn't recognize Carol. Although she had worn a white wig and make-up, she was not as disguised as Sam had been. I guess that Peter had not paid any attention to her. His attention had been centered on Santa.
While Sam and I visited and watched the boys play with their new toys, the two women were busy in the kitchen. I think there was more talking going on in there than actual food preparation. I knew that Hildy had completed most of it before our guests had arrived. Peter had to show Sam all his new toys and who gave them to him.
"Santa Claus gave me this one," Peter said, showing Sam one of the presents he had received the night before. "You look like Santa," he added, patting Sam on his ample stomach.
This naturally brought on another round of laughter from Sam, including a very Santa like, "Ho! Ho! Ho!"
"You sound like Santa, too."
We were saved from any further speculation about the Dr. Sam/Santa Claus connection by Hildy announcing that dinner would be ready as soon as everybody washed their hands. "I guess that means us," I said. As the boys took off for their rooms to wash, I showed Sam where he could follow Hildy's instructions.
"Where's Manfred?" I asked Hildy, when I returned to the table.
"He got a call earlier from the police," she said. "It seems that someone broke into his office over night and he went to check on the place. He called a while ago and said he was going to be tied up for a while and that we should go ahead without him. I'm sure there will be plenty left for him when he gets here."
"From the looks of the table, there will be enough left over to last for a week," I laughed.
"We'll see," she smiled knowingly.
There was food left over, but not nearly as much as I thought there would be. Everything was delicious and we all ate way too much. The boys were carrying their dirty plates to the kitchen when Manfred arrived. Hildy fixed him a plate of food from the leftovers while the rest of the adults enjoyed cups of coffee and listened to his account of the break-in.
The burglars didn't get any money, since none was ever kept overnight at the office. They did take the office computer, a small TV and a riding lawnmower. One thing the burglars missed was the surveillance camera tape. It had been turned over to the police.
"Weren't all your business records on that computer?" I asked.
"Yes," Manfred smiled. "But bless Bran's heart, when he set up my computer system he was insistent that I also have a way to create a backup of the system. I tried to talk him out of it at the time, because it was an expensive option that I thought I would never need. He wouldn't hear of not having one. Now, if he were here, I'd kiss him."
"Smart young man," I said. "So, you have a recent backup?"
"Absolutely. At first it was a manual thing that I had to do just before I closed up shop for the week. When I failed to do it once when Bran was still here, he chewed me out. After that he wrote an application that backs up everything every night after I've closed. I don't know how it works, but he assured me that it does. He said it's a clone or something like that, whatever that means."
"So, the robbers didn't take it?" I asked.
"No, it was under the desk and I guess they didn't notice it when they ripped the computer off the desk. Luckily, I had just closed out the books for the end of the year so I don't have to rush to get everything back up and running. I wish Bran were here to help."
"If the cops don't recover your computer, maybe I can help," I said.
"Thanks, I'll hold you to that."
By this time, Manfred had finished his meal and we adjourned to the living room for a glass of wine. The boys had gone outside to play with their dogs and their new outdoor toys. The weather had turned out rather chilly, but they didn't seem to notice with all their running around. Carol and Hildy joined us after they finished in the kitchen. We were all too full from the meal to join in the boys' activities and were content to watch through the windows.
"By the way, Sam, how did playing Santa for Lucas go last night?" I asked.
"Oh dear, that was both a depressing and uplifting experience."
"How do you mean?"
"The mobile home they live in is in terrible shape. I thought with every step I took I was in danger of falling through the floor. The place was clean, but I've not seen furniture in worse shape that was still being used. The uplifting part was Lucas' reaction to Santa. His reaction was Peter's reaction times ten. He sat on my lap and hugged me for a good five minutes before he was able to stop crying. It was only when Carol handed him a couple toys that he hopped off my lap to unwrap them. We gave Mrs. Karnes the rest of the presents that Dirk had purchased. I told Lucas that he had to wait until morning to open the rest of Santa's presents. We knew we would have some time before Dirk could get there with his purchases, so Carol insisted that we stop by the HEB to pick up some groceries for their Christmas dinner. Mrs. Karnes was overwhelmed by everything. When we left there were tears in her eyes as she gave us both a hug. Lucas held onto my leg and didn't want me to go, but I told him I had to go see a lot of other boys and girls."
"Wonderful," I said.
Later that afternoon, Carol and Sam left. They declined Hildy's offer to take home some leftovers. They hadn't been gone but a couple of minutes when the phone rang.
"Crane, it's Eric. Merry Christmas!"
"And a Merry Christmas to you," I said. "How was spending your first Christmas in California?"
"Well actually, we didn't. We flew in last night and spent the night with Darcie and Mel," Eric said.
"That's great. How long are you going to be here?"
"I have to be back to work on the fourth and JR starts back to school on the fifth. Bran's got another week before his classes begin."
"I hope we can see you all before you fly back. I know the boys would want to see JR and Bran."
"That's sort of why I called. Mel's brother, his wife and two kids arrived today rather unexpectedly and plan to stay for a couple of days. Darcie's house is too small for all ten people to have a place to sleep. I was wondering if it might be possible to bunk with you guys for a couple of days until Mel's brother leaves."
"I'm sure we can find room for the three of you. You know you're always welcome."
"There will only be two of us. Bran is going to stay with Shane. If it's all right, we'll be there around seven."
"That's fine. Tell Bran that Manfred might want to speak with him while he's here. See you around seven, then."
I went to tell the boys that JR was coming. As expected, they were thrilled. Hildy had the same reaction and went into high gear to make sure there was food when they arrived. Manfred was disappointed that Bran wasn't coming, but seemed to be satisfied when I told him Bran would probably call while they were in Texas.
It was like old times when our guests arrived. The boys immediately grabbed JR and his bag and headed up the stairs to get him settled in their room. It sounded as if there were seven conversations going on at the same time as they disappeared. The rest of us headed into the living room where we caught up on what had been happening in everybody's lives.
"How's the new job going?" I asked Eric.
"I really like what I'm doing and I'm learning so many new things. The people I work with are really great. Raj says he wants to take the company public sometime next year. A lot will depend on the patent applications that the company has pending."
"How's Bran?" Manfred asked.
"He has really blossomed since he's been out on his own. If he keeps going as he is now, he'll graduate with a straight 4.0 average. I've never seen anyone who loves to study like he does. It seems like he's got his nose stuck in a textbook all the time. He even brought a couple with him and studied on the plane," Eric said, shaking his head.
"I hope he spends some time socializing. There's a lot more to college than academics. It's a great place to learn and apply the social graces," I said.
"Oh, he does. He's involved with a couple campus groups, but he's very disciplined. He doesn't let anything interfere with his studies. He and Elijah get together at least once a week and go to a movie or just out for coffee."
"Elijah's that guy he met while you were out there to purchase the condo, isn't he?" I asked.
"Yes, they're great friends. I think Elijah is a good influence on Bran. He doesn't drink or smoke, which is a rare thing for a college student these days."
We had been talking for about half an hour when the boys came downstairs. From the looks in their eyes, it was clear that they were hungry. That sent Hildy to the kitchen. After all that we had eaten earlier in the day, I didn't think it would be possible for them to be hungry.
"Wow, dad, did you see all the stuff they got for Christmas?" JR asked.
"Yes, but you have to remember, there are six of them so there're lots of presents. There's only one of you," Eric said.
"Yeah, I know, but it'd be nice to have a bunch of brothers so that we'd get lots of presents, too."
"Bite your tongue. You're about all I can handle without any brothers," Eric laughed.
Over the next two days it was great having Eric and JR around again. Bran and Manfred were able to get together and they got a new computer system set up for the business. I think Manfred was as sad to see Bran leave as the rest of us were to see JR and Eric go. Although they weren't flying back to California for one more day, they were going to spend it with Darcie and Mel. Eric and I had been able to renew our relationship, but by the time he left, we both were aware that what we once felt for each other was no longer as strong as it had been before he left. That's not to say that we didn't have feelings, we just knew it was over. I think we were both saddened by the realization, at least I knew I was.
By Tuesday morning the boys were getting restless. Although the weather was rather cool and the sun was hidden by a thick layer of clouds, I decided to take the boys to the farm to ride the horses. I called Tracy and told him we were coming so they would be prepared. We were heading for the garage to load up when the phone rang. It was Jack.
"Good morning, Jack, I hope you had a good Christmas," I said.
"We had a great Christmas. Jack, Jr. was home from college which made it special. Look, the reason I called was to tell you that most of the investigation has been completed on Gary Wright and his family and I thought I'd give you an update."
"We were just heading out the door to go riding. Let me call you back later when we return. Better yet, why don't you bring the family out to the farm and go riding with us?"
"Carolyn and Sara have gone shopping and Jack, Jr. went to visit some of his old friends, but Timmy and I can make it. It's been a while since I've been on a horse. Give me directions to your farm and we'll meet you there as soon as we can. And thanks, Timmy has been driving me up the wall for something to do."
I gave Jack the directions to the farm. By the time I hung up the phone, the boys were already in the van and buckled up. I handed my cell phone to Joel and told him to call Tracy and tell him that we needed two more horses saddled. As soon as the van stopped at the farm, the boys were out of it and took off for the stables. I stopped to greet Rosie and the baby. As I was talking to her, Jack drove in. I was surprised at how much Timmy had grown since I last saw him. At 16 he was as tall as his dad and had the build of a wrestler. I introduced them to Rosie and then we headed for the stables.
The boys had taken off by the time we arrived at the stables. Tracy and Charlie were there with the five remaining horses. Charlie had brought the quarter horses so that what turned out to be 12 of us could ride. After the introductions were made, we all mounted up and took off to find the others. Timmy took off at a gallop. It was very apparent that he had a good deal of experience riding a horse.
Jack and I were walking our horses. I wanted to talk to him about what his investigators had found out about Gary Wright and his family situation.
"Our more in depth investigation," Jack started, "only confirms what the initial one turned up. The family is making ends meet, but that is about all. His insurance covers most of his daughter's medical expenses. It does not cover the cost of the caregiver that is with her during the day while both of them work. At the moment the daughter doesn't require skilled nursing care so the insurance won't pay for what is essentially a babysitter. Lester Mills, one of the agents assigned to the investigation, posed as a CPS worker and interviewed both Gary and Phyllis. He just faxed me the report this morning, that's why I called you."
"What did he learn from the interview?"
"The reason they are seeking custody of Peter is out of a sense of loyalty to his sister. He knows she was a rotten mother and only wants to see that Peter has a family. Lester's opinion is that while they are asking for custody they're not looking forward to the prospects of raising another child. Gary asked for information about the foster home Peter was in, but Lester declined to provide any details other than he was being well taken care of."
"That's encouraging," I said. "Did Lester give any indication as to whether they would be agreeable to meet with Peter's foster family?"
"Not directly, only inferring from the fact they asked about it, I'd say they might be. It wouldn't cost you anything but a phone call to find out. If you want, I'll give you the address and phone number."
"Yes, by all means." Maybe there was hope after all.
We joined the boys at the back of the pasture where they were racing their horses against each other. Even Peter got involved. I held my breath when he spurred Lady to a gallop as he raced against TJ. Because of Lady's smaller stature and shorter legs, she wasn't able to keep up with TJ's horse, but that didn't diminish Peter's enjoyment as witnessed by the smile on his face and his giggles. As he crossed the 'finish line', he received a cheer from the other boys. They couldn't have cheered louder if he had won the race. I walked the quarter horse that I was riding over to where he was and leaned down and hugged his shoulder. "Good ride," I said to him. He just looked up at me with the same smile that had been on his lips when he was racing.
Despite the urging of my sons, I declined to race them. Jack did the same. As lunch time approached, I noticed that the boys tended to get nearer to the front of the pasture and the stables. It didn't take much urging on my part to get them to dismount and start grooming their mounts. I invited Jack and Timmy to join us for lunch, but he declined saying they had to get back to the house. He had a meeting with one of his agents at two o'clock. He said he would email me the information on the Wrights as soon as he got home.
I called Hildy and told her we were going to stop for burgers on the way home, so she wouldn't have to fix anything. Wendy's was busy when we got there, but it didn't take all that long to place our orders. Cheese burgers, fries and Frosties were the fare for lunch. Not the healthiest of lunches, but then we don't indulge in fast food all that often.
There was an email from Jack waiting for me when we arrived home. I was tempted to make the call immediately, but realized that Gary would probably be at work. His wife would more than likely be at home since she worked for the school district and they would be on Christmas holiday. I decided to wait until after supper to make the call.
"Where's Hildy?" TJ asked.
"I don't know. Maybe she went to the grocery store," I said.
"Huh uh, her car's in the garage.
"Well, is the golf cart there?" I asked.
Without answering, he headed toward the garage to find out. A few seconds later he was back. "The golf cart's gone."
"That means she's probably over at her new house."
"Can we go?"
"Sure, you and Peter put your coats on and we'll walk over there." I grabbed my coat and went to find the other boys to see if they wanted to go with us. They said they didn't, so I told Joel he was in charge. The walk from our front door to the back door of Hildy's house was about a quarter of a mile. I think Peter walked twice that distance. He was constantly running off the side of the asphalt path to look at something or pick up a pretty rock. I knocked on the back door and then opened it and hollered out for Hildy.
"I'm upstairs. Come on in," she hollered back.
The place smelled of fresh paint and there were appliance boxes sitting in the kitchen waiting to be uncrated and installed. TJ and Peter had to look in every room on the ground floor before we went upstairs to see Hildy. When we got up there she was talking to the painters. The gist of the conversation was that they had painted the bedroom in the wrong color and she wanted them to repaint it. The older of the two painters was not happy about having to redo several hours of work, but Hildy was insistent. He finally relented knowing that he had made the mistake.
"And don't try getting away with doing a sloppy job, either," Hildy told him. "Your boss is an old friend of mine and he prides himself and his company on doing a good job." Turning to me she said, "This bedroom was supposed to be painted Butter Up and the one across the hall was to be painted Sequin, but they reversed them. Thankfully, they had only painted half of this bedroom."
"It looks like things are coming right along," I said.
"Yes, but there are still lots of things to do before it's complete. All the painting is done downstairs. Two of the appliances were delivered today. The range and microwave are supposed to be delivered tomorrow and they'll get everything installed then. The carpets won't be installed until after the first of the year and all the painting is done. We're still targeting the second week of January for move in."
"We're going to miss you being there all the time," I said.
"Me, too," she said, and then turning to TJ and Peter. "You want to ride in the cart back to the house?"
"Yeah!" they both shouted, and they ran to the back door.
"You can probably hop on the back," Hildy said.
"Thanks, but I think I'll walk. I need the exercise after all the food I've eaten over the past few days."
Hildy drove the golf cart slowly despite Peter's urging her to go faster. I walked behind the cart, but didn't try to keep up with it. Even with Hildy driving slowly, they beat me to the house by a minute or two. I removed my coat and walked upstairs to check on the boys. TJ and Peter were regaling their brothers with descriptions of Hildy and Manfred's house. At times they were both talking at once. Peter was his most excited when he was describing the trip back in the golf cart. You would have thought it was a magic carpet from his description.
At supper, Manfred informed us that the police were able to identify the culprits who had broken into his office and had arrested one of the two miscreants shown on the tape. The computer was not recovered. The police speculated that it had been stripped of its components and sold on eBay or Craig's List. There was no way to tell.
I waited until it was nearly eight o'clock before I made the phone call to Gary Wright. The phone rang four times before a woman answered.
"Hello, my name is Crane Johnson. May I speak with Gary Wright, please?"
"I'm sorry, we don't want any insurance or whatever you're selling," she said and hung up the phone.
I immediately redialed the number. This time a man answered.
"My wife said we aren't interested. Don't call again."
"Mr. Wright, I'm not selling anything. I'm the foster parent for your nephew, Peter."
"Forgive me. We've recently been swamped by telemarketers. Phyllis said you sounded just like one of them. What did you say your name was? Phyllis didn't say."
"Crane Johnson. As I said, Peter is being fostered in my home with my five sons. May I ask you a few questions?"
"I guess. I can't promise you that I'll answer them."
"When was the last time you saw Peter?"
"Let me think ... It must have been close to three years ago. He was around two at the time."
"Would you be interested in seeing him again?"
"Yes, I want to make sure he's okay."
"I can assure you that he is being well taken care of. My five sons and I have become very fond of him since we discovered him at our front gate."
"What do you mean, you found him at your gate?"
"According to Peter, his parents dumped him there and left."
"God Damn her and that asshole of a husband," Gary shouted into the phone. "The CPS caseworker didn't tell me that, just that he was left with a family."
"If you are interested in seeing Peter again, when would be a convenient time for us to meet?"
"I work during the week and can't afford to take off work, so it would have to be on a weekend. I don't know. With New Year's Day being on Friday, would that weekend be okay?"
"I'm sure that would be fine. I know that your daughter's condition makes travel for you difficult. I propose that we meet you there in College Station. We can meet at your house or someplace else if that's not convenient. I'll be bringing my five sons along with Peter."
"Our house is pretty small. Maybe it would be better if we met somewhere else."
"Why don't we try to meet for lunch on Saturday? Perhaps we could find a nice restaurant that has a private dining room where we could talk."
"Belinio's is close and I know they have a private area. Since the college is on winter break, it shouldn't be a problem reserving it."
"Let me take care of that. I'll call and let you know the details when I get it all arranged."
We hung up and I immediately called Information for the number of Belinio's. After getting the number, I dialed it and made the reservation for Saturday at eleven. I called Gary and gave him the information and said we would meet them as close to eleven as we could.
The drive to College Station would take a little more than three hours. That meant we would have to leave a little before eight to make it on time. I decided not to tell the boys about the trip until Friday. I did tell Hildy what was going on and asked her if she wanted to go along. She thought about it for a while and then declined saying that the carpet installers were coming that day.
As was the case every year before, the boys wanted to stay up on New Year's Eve to welcome in the New Year. I knew, at least, TJ and Peter would be asleep long before midnight. I agreed to let them, but insisted that they take their showers and get into their pajamas at the regular times. We settled down to watch the TV as it showed the celebrations as midnight moved closer to our time zone. By ten o'clock, Peter was snuggled up next to me on the couch. TJ was on my other side. Another ten minutes and they were both asleep. I got Joel's attention and between us we carried them both and put them in their beds.
The twins and Chris made it almost to eleven before the three of them were asleep on the floor of the family room. I carried Lenny and Joel struggled with Larry, but he was able to make it to their bedroom by taking the elevator instead of the stairs. I went back and carried Chris up to bed. Joel decided he didn't need to stay up any longer and headed for his bedroom. I thought that was a good idea and followed suit.
Friday afternoon, I told the boys we were going to take a trip to College Station to visit Peter's uncle. When the realization of what that might mean sank in on the twins they started to object, but I put my finger to my lips and shook my head. "Later," I said.
"I didn't know I had an uncle," Peter said.
"Yes, son, Gary Wright is your mother's brother. You haven't seen him in a long while," I said, "not since you were a baby."
I took the four older boys aside and explained the situation in more detail to them and told them not to repeat anything I told them to TJ or Peter. I didn't want either of their brothers to be upset. They agreed, but they weren't happy about the prospects that Peter might have to go live with this uncle. I also warned them not to be hostile to Mr. Wright and his family when we met them.
Saturday morning we were on the road by 7:45. Joel was doing his best to keep the conversations upbeat. The boys had never been cooped up in the van for this long before and the trip began to show on them after a couple hours of travel. By the time we arrived at Belinio's, they were more than ready to get out of the van and stretch their legs. We were shown into the "party room", as the restaurant called it. The Wrights had not arrived. Our waitress offered to bring us something to drink while we waited. She returned a few minutes later after taking our order.
We had just settled down with our beverages when the door to the room opened and a man pushing a wheelchair with a young girl in it and a heavy set woman behind him entered.