Lenore, Jeannie and Ginny were out of the pool in a flash. The three of them surrounded Mike and hugged him. It didn't seem to matter to them that they were soaking his clothes.
"How are my three favorite girls," Mike said, returning their hugs. "Did you miss me?"
All three of them answered at the same time and it was impossible to understand the words, but it was eminently apparent that they did indeed miss him. By this time, Manfred and Donald had climbed out of the pool and had approached the group.
"Girls, you're getting Mike all wet," Manfred said.
"Don't worry, I'll dry off by the time I get back to Austin," Mike responded. "It's just good to see everybody again."
I had joined the group and asked Mike, "What do we owe the pleasure of your visit?"
"Today is Mom's birthday and Aunt Liz had a party for her. She only lives a couple of miles north of here, so I thought on my way back to school I'd stop and say hello."
"We're glad that you did," Donald said. "Can you stay and eat with us? There's plenty."
"I wish I could, but I have to meet with my lab partners in about an hour to prepare for our lab tomorrow. The professor is a real hard nose if you come unprepared."
"How're things going at the university?" I asked.
"They're working us hard, but it's going great. Oh, by the way, we have a fourth in the condo as of last Thursday. Kevin is the new guy. I knew him from San Antonio. He's a year ahead of me. I ran into him after one of my classes earlier in the week and he was complaining about the 'dump', as he called it, where he was living. I talked to my roommates about having him move in with us since we had the spare bed. They agreed. They knew him as well. Kevin came to see the place and jumped at the chance to move in with us."
"That's great," Donald said. "Now your expenses can be split four ways."
"I'd like to stay longer, but I have to get back," Mike said, giving the girls another hug. "Why don't you slip on your sandals and walk with me to my car?"
The girls readily agreed and the group of us followed him back through the house to his car. Hildy met us as we walked through the house and handed Mike a container that looked as if it contained brisket and some sausages. She hugged him and headed back toward the kitchen. As he drove off, the girls waved goodbye to him until his car had turned onto the road and was out of sight.
"How come Mike had to leave?" Lenore asked her dad.
"He had to go study for his school," Donald said. "Maybe he can come again some weekend. We'll see. Now let's go back to the pool. Linda must be wondering what has happened to you girls."
"Sorry about leaving you like that," I told the Watsons and Collins. "Mike stayed with us and helped take care of our kids for some time. He made a big impression on the girls, as I'm sure you noticed. He's now attending UT at Austin."
"I've seen that young man before. I believe he went to college with my younger sister," Phyllis Watson said. "They may have dated once or twice and attended some of our family gatherings. That was a couple of years ago. Always seemed like a nice person."
"Well, if you'll excuse me, I should get the briskets and sausages on the grill to get heated up. Donald, will you see if any of our guests need something to drink?"
"Sure thing," Donald said. "We have a variety of wines to choose from or to go with the barbeque we have some Shiner's beers. What'll it be?" Cal Watson and Barry Collins decided on a Shiner Bock while Phyllis and Gloria selected a white wine. Donald returned shortly with a tray carrying the drinks.
"I'm thirsty, too," William said when he saw his dad carrying the tray.
"There's a tub on the patio with all kinds of soft drinks. Go help yourself," Donald told his son.
That was all it took and the pool was emptied as the boys headed for the patio. The girls were not far behind.
As the time for supper approached, I suggested to the kids that they might want to shower and put on some clothes other than their swimsuits.
"I'll go with my son to see that he doesn't make a mess," Cal said.
"There are spare bathrooms if you want to use one," I said.
"Our clothes are in Larry and Lenny's room. We can use the shower in their bathroom," Garth said.
"Okay, son, I'll come check on you in a little while," Cal said. "Please don't get water all over the floor."
Twenty minutes later, nine boys and four girls, freshly showered and looking hungry, joined the rest of us on the patio. "Just in time," I said. "Supper is almost ready."
As if on cue, Hildy and Gilda arrived carrying bowls of ranch beans and cole slaw and placed them on the tables which had been set while the showers were being taken. Manfred followed carrying several baskets of corn bread.
"Okay, everybody, grab a plate and line up at the grill and I'll dish up the brisket and sausages," I said. "We'll let the kids go through the line first. Some of the adults may need to help some of the younger ones with their plates."
Everything went smoothly and soon everybody was seated with full plates in front of them. I had just gotten seated with my own plate when Chris tapped me on the shoulder.
"Can we get some more," he said.
"Do you think you can get it yourself without getting burned?" I asked.
"Of course, I'm not a baby," Chris said indignantly.
"I know you're not. Be careful."
He was followed to the grill by four others. I turned so that I could watch. I was pleasantly surprised at how careful he was as he dished up the meat to his brothers and two guests. I smiled and gave him a thumbs up when he looked my way and got a big smile in return.
"Hey, guys," Hildy said, "don't forget there's peach cobbler and ice cream for dessert."
"We'll save room," Larry said, getting agreement from the others at his table.
"This brisket is wonderful," Gloria said.
"I can't take any credit for it. The credit goes to the Smokehouse. All I did was heat it up. That goes for the sausages as well," I said.
"We haven't been there for a couple of years," Barry said. "We just never think about it when we eat out."
The peach cobbler was a hit with the boys. The size of the dessert that Hildy served them was more than I thought they could possibly eat, but again I was wrong. I think they may have even licked the plate to get the last morsel.
Before long and after the dishes had been cleared from the tables, it was time for our guests to leave. Garth and Erin had been great guests. They were polite and interacted well with all the other members of our extended family. They would certainly be welcome back in the future. Their parents were also very friendly and didn't seem to be disturbed by our unconventional family.
"Thank you for having me come visit, Mr. Johnson. I had a lot of fun, even if Chris beat me in tennis," Garth said with a smile, before heading for his family's car.
"I had fun, too," Erin said. "It'd be great to have so many brothers. Larry and Lenny and Chris are sure lucky. Thanks for inviting me."
"Come back anytime," I said. "We enjoyed your visit."
The boys' parents thanked us for our hospitality before they got into their cars. We stood on the front steps and watched as the two cars drove down the driveway and left our property.
"Cal does business with one of mine," Donald said, as we settled into the living room. "I'd never met him before, but we got to talking about what business he was in and I asked him if he had ever done anything for Baker Inc. He said that his company did. It's a small world."
"Dad, I'm going to go call Jimmy and then do some studying," Joel said.
"Okay, son, and thanks for helping out today. I appreciate it," I said.
"How do you think Lenore will be tonight sleeping alone in her new room?" I asked Donald.
"We'll see. It went fine with Jeannie and Ginny here last night. A little noisy at times, but all in all it went fine. She's got all of her toys and stuffed animals there, so once she goes to sleep she should be okay. That baby monitor in her room should alert us if she wakes up during the night and cries out."
"Does she know where you'll be?"
"Yes, I showed her, but I think I had better walk her through it again before she goes to bed. I'm not looking forward to her walking in on us in bed."
"We're going to be eating leftovers for a week," Hildy said. "I may make some jambalaya with the sausage, but the brisket will end up in sandwiches, so get used to it. We're heading home. Donald, you might want to be with Lenore when we leave."
"Good idea," Donald said. A short time later he returned carrying Lenore. "Let's read a story before you go to bed. Alright?"
"Uh huh, can you read Snow White?" Lenore asked.
"Sure, can you go get it?"
Lenore scrambled up the stairs to her room and was soon back with the book. Donald sat down on the couch and lifted her onto his lap before opening the book and starting to read. It wasn't long before her eyes started to close. Donald read a couple of minutes longer before she was completely asleep.
"I'm going to get her into bed," he whispered to me.
"Did she wake up?" I asked, when he returned.
"She's out like a light," he said. "I didn't get the chance to walk her through where I'll be. I just hope she sleeps through the night."
"I'm going to check on the boys," I said. "It's awfully quiet up there."
"Not necessarily a good sign," Donald replied. "I'll go with you."
There was nobody in the main area on the second floor and a check of the bedrooms didn't turn up any of the boys other than Joel who was on the phone when we checked his room. The only other area to check was the music room. As we got near the door to it, we could hear the faint sounds of the instruments being played. The sound proofing that had been installed during the conversion was doing its job. We opened the door and were hit by a cacophony of sounds that didn't resemble music. Every instrument was being played by boys, all playing their own musical piece. TJ was standing behind William at one of the keyboards and appeared to be showing him how to pick out a tune. One by one the boys stopped playing as they noticed us standing there observing.
"Hi, dad," TJ said. "William wanted to learn how to play, so I was helping him."
"That's fine, son," I said. "We need to find another music teacher for you guys. Maybe that would help William to learn."
"Can I dad?" William asked.
"You bet. We'll try to find a teacher this week. How's that?"
"It's getting time for you guys to get ready for bed. Tomorrow is a school day. Since you had a shower before supper, you can probably skip one tonight, if you want. Just make sure you brush your teeth," I said.
Donald went to check on Lenore as we started our nightly rounds. She was sleeping peacefully with her favorite stuffed dog in her arms. We entered the newly renovated bedroom where TJ, Peter and William slept. As was becoming a ritual, TJ was sitting on William's bed reading him and Peter a story. We sat down on the bed beside them and waited for the story to end.
"How do you guys like your new bedroom?" I asked, as I tucked Peter into his bed.
"It's really neat," TJ commented. "Our new shower if big enough for all of us to get in at the same time."
"I like it," Peter said.
"Me, too," William added.
"Good night," Donald and I said as we left the room.
When the twins and Chris saw us enter their bedroom, they hurriedly shut down the computer game and climbed into their beds. They were soon tucked in and we went to Joel's room.
"Dad, Jimmy said he has to take his last CBE the same time I have to take one in December. Can he ride with us to Austin?"
"Of course he may. This time I think I'll go along. The last time was a little dangerous," I said, smiling.
"Oh, dad, that wasn't my fault," Joel said, frowning.
"I know, son. I was just teasing you. Don't stay up too long studying. Lights out in half an hour. Good night."
"I hope some of Joel's studiousness rubs off on William as he grows up. He's a good role model for the other boys," Donald said, as we headed back downstairs.
I was somewhat surprised that we heard nothing from Lenore all night. I know Donald went to check on her at least once during the night.
Gilda was in the kitchen when I went to get my first cup of coffee of the day. As usual she was mumbling to herself. "I'm going to have to put you on the payroll if you continue to fix our breakfast," I told her, as I poured my coffee.
"Oh, you will do no such thing," she said, shaking a spatula at me. "I do this because it makes me feel needed. Before I came to visit Hildy, I didn't realize how much I missed doing something useful. I had my friends, but really, my life was dull and boring. Your kids give me something to do that's useful. I'd pay you if necessary."
"But you do so much for us ..."
"Fiddlesticks! I certainly don't need the money. My husband was very successful and made more money than I could spend in two lifetimes. I've fallen in love with your kids and with Hildy's girls. They have made my life fun again. Now, shoo so I can get breakfast finished."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, giving her a one-armed hug.
Donald came into the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee. "Crane, with all that has been going on over the weekend I neglected to mention that the other board members gave their approval for your appointment to my board of directors."
"I'd almost forgotten about that," I said. "When does it meet?"
"The next meeting will be in the second week of November. The meetings are scheduled for once a quarter. Ordinarily they are spread over two days. On occasion, when the situation requires it, we meet on a conference call. That doesn't happen very often. To be honest, the board is mostly symbolic. It fills a basic regulatory requirement. Since I control 81% of the corporation's stock directly and another 15% indirectly belonging to William and Lenore, the board acts in an advisory capacity. The other 4% is held in a charitable trust."
"It looks as if I'm going to be spending a lot of time as a board member, what with your board, the school board and the charity," I said. "I think it's time to get the kids up. I think Gilda has breakfast almost ready."
When I returned from waking the boys, Lenore was sitting on Donald's lap at the breakfast table drinking a glass of orange juice. The boys soon came tromping down the stairs ready for their breakfast. Gilda was ready for them and had the food on the table as soon as everybody had been seated.
"Dad," Joel said, "I have golf practice after school. May I drive my car to school so you won't have to come back for me?"
"Yes," I answered. "One rule you need to follow; no passengers. And it goes without saying, no speeding."
"Dad, you know I don't drive fast."
"I know, son. I was just teasing you."
"Thanks, dad, I'll be careful."
After breakfast, Donald went to help Lenore brush her teeth and get dressed. I went to check on TJ, Peter and William. I was concerned that they might not be able to find their school uniforms in their new bedroom. TJ was busy laying out all the uniforms on each of the beds. "Good job," I said, giving him a hug. "I was wondering if you guys could find them."
Joel followed the van to the school and parked in an area set aside for students' cars. I'd never paid much attention to that lot until this morning. I was surprised at the number of new and expensive cars parked there.
When I returned to the house, Gilda told me that a Chuck Solaris called and wanted me to call him back when I was available. I wondered what was going on with the apartments that he would be calling so early. I headed for my library, thankful that the cleaning crew had already finished their work in there.
"Chuck," I said, when he answered the phone, "what's the emergency that you called so early?"
"No emergency," he laughed. "I just had a call from my source on the apartment complex we spoke about. He gave me the rundown on the financial situation of the builder. The bank is about a week away from declaring that his loan is in default."
"So, what's the bottom line if I were to step in?" I asked.
Chuck detailed what it would take to rescue the development. I was amazed at the detail that he had gotten from his source. When I asked him how he got the information, he said he couldn't give me the name of his informant, but that the information was accurate. The amount of money that it would take to acquire the property was very reasonable.
"Okay, let's say I'm interested in taking it over. Who would I need to contact in the bank?"
"Hank Boston," Chuck said. "He's the one who is handling the loan and whose neck is on the line if the builder defaults on it." He gave me Hank's phone number just in case I wanted to follow through.
I made a conference call to Gerald and Carlos to discuss the possibility of getting involved in the matter. Although Gerald said that my liquidity was such that I could take on the project from a financial point, he would need more information before he could make a recommendation one way or the other. Carlos, always the cautious lawyer, said that he would make a call to Hank Boston to dig into any legal issues that might stand in the way of the project.
I left it in their capable hands, since their advice is what I paid them a retainer for.
Wednesday night arrived and I headed for the school to attend the Board Meeting. I was a little more nervous than I thought I would be as I parked the Lincoln and headed for the main entrance. The headmaster, Justin Pierce, met me inside the front door and walked with me to the meeting room. I had noticed a few cars in the parking lot and was a bit surprised to see a dozen or so people sitting in the audience waiting for the meeting to begin.
At eight o'clock, the president of the School Board, Fred Black, gaveled the meeting to order. The next several minutes were taken up with the routine business, such as determining that a quorum was present and the minutes of the previous meeting were read. Next old business was discussed. Finally, the new business portion of the meeting was announced. There were a couple of items that were discussed before the agenda item concerning my appointment to the board was announced.
Mr. Pierce walked to the podium and addressed the board. He outlined my educational background, my business background and my charity work. This took about ten minutes before he introduced me and asked that I say a few words about my educational philosophy. Although I had not prepared anything in particular, I was used to speaking extemporaneously. I spoke for another ten minutes and I saw a number of the board members nodding their heads as if in agreement with what I was saying.
When I finished and looked around, I noticed that Hildy and Manfred had slipped in. I had not expected them to attend. I guess that Gilda was babysitting. Mr. Black asked the board members if they had any questions to ask me. A couple of them did, mostly about the number of children I had that were attending the Academy, their grade levels, and any extra-curricular activities they participated in. One asked me if I thought a football program should be added to the sports programs.
"No," I answered. "While football can add to school spirit, there are two things I think argue against it for Corinthian Academy. One is the possibility of injury to the participants is not to be taken lightly. Look at the makeup of the students in this school. From what I can see, they are highly motivated scholastically. You don't see the big burly guys walking the halls. The sports programs that are currently offered can be participated in by both males and females. I don't think there are many families here who would want their daughters to put on pads and play football. The second thing to consider is the aura that surrounds football in Texas. It is a religion, a fundamentalist religion. It takes over schools to the detriment of the educational experience. Parents and supporters become fanatics where winning is everything. I, for one, would hate to see that happen to this school. Those two points are what argues against football for me. The board would also have to consider the expenses that would be required to institute the program."
"Thank you, Mr. Johnson," Fred said. "Are there any questions or comments from the audience?"
A man dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black tie walked to the podium and began speaking. "Mr. President, my name is Gale Marshall. While I am impressed with Mr. Johnson's academic credentials and his charitable work, one of the items that was not included in Mr. Pierce's introduction was Mr. Johnson's arrest record."
That caused a stir in the audience and a lot of murmurings. Even the board members were whispering to each other. "Mr. Marshall," Fred Black said, "please explain your comment. Do you have any proof of you allegation?"
"Yes, sir, I have a copy of his arrest record for kidnapping of a minor male by the name of Christopher Mathew Martin."
"Mr. Johnson, would you care to comment on Mr. Marshall's charge?" Fred asked.
"Yes, sir, I would. First, I would like to point out that Christopher Mathew Martin is now Christopher Mathew Johnson, my adopted son and a student at the Academy. I was in fact arrested on a false warrant sworn out by Chris' parents who had abandoned him. I had taken him into my home at the insistence of my twin sons when they discovered he had no place to live. I had notified CPS of my actions and was told that he could stay with us until custody arrangements could be worked out. It seemed that his parents had found out that he was the beneficiary of a sizable estate and they wanted in on it. Once the true facts were known, I was released from custody after spending several hours in jail. Chris' biological parents are now serving long sentences in a Louisiana prison for crimes they committed there. I am curious as to where Mr. Marshall obtained a copy of that arrest record since it was ordered purged from the system."
"Yes, Mr. Marshall, where did you get that information?" Fred asked.
"I'm afraid I can't reveal my source," Marshall blustered. "Another item that was not mentioned by Mr. Pierce is the fact that Mr. Johnson is a bachelor living alone with six young boys. Who knows what vile things go on there in that fenced off commune?"
"Gale Marshall, sit down and shut up," said a voice from behind me I recognized as Hildy's. "I've known you ever since we were young kids in school. You haven't changed a bit, always thinking the worst about others. Let me set you straight about what goes on in that 'fenced off commune' as you called it. I've worked for Crane Johnson for a lot of years, first at cleaning his house and shopping for him. Later when the boys came to live with him, I became a live-in nanny and sometime surrogate grandmother for the boys. Now I cook and manage his household. In all those years there has never been anything inappropriate going on between him and the boys. My husband, sitting over there can attest to that as well. What there is is a whole lot of love, the love of a father for boys he rescued from abuse and neglect. I have the utmost respect for Crane and what he has done for the boys. Now sit down and quit making a fool of yourself. I'm sure that Crane will serve on the board with the same dedication he has shown to his adopted family."
Marshall sat down without saying another word, looking very cowed. Hildy's stature and presence can do that to people.
"Hildegard," said Fred Black, "if you say Mr. Johnson is the right man for the job, that's good enough for me. I move that Mr. Crane Johnson's nomination to the board be approved."
The motion was seconded and the vote was unanimous to approve the nomination. Marshall rapidly left the room hustling his wife ahead of him.
After the meeting was adjourned, Hildy approached Fred Black. "I'm sorry I spouted off like that and interrupted your meeting, but I just couldn't let that pea-brained Gale's innuendo go unchallenged."
Fred laughed, "Hildegard, you always were one to state your mind and I, for one, am glad that you did. Ordinarily Marshall's rants are not quite as personal as they were tonight. We usually listen politely to him until he runs out of steam and then go on with our business. Just between the two of us, he's a pain in the butt."
"You all should come visit the 'fenced off commune' sometime to see what goes on there," Hildy said.
"I second that motion," I said. "Now, let's get out of here. We might be able to get home in time to tuck our broods into bed."