Friday morning at breakfast, I didn't mention anything to TJ about the news story on TV last night. The morning paper didn't have any more details than we heard last night. It may have been selfish on my part, but I was hoping that the family in the news was not Alex's.
I dropped the seven boys and two girls off at school and returned to the house. I planned to call Jack and see if he still had any contacts in the police or sheriff's department. Maybe he would be able to find out more information about the murders. He wasn't in the office when I called and I was told he wouldn't be in until later in the day, so I left a message for him to call me back when he returned.
I had barely hung up the phone when it rang. I knew it couldn't be Jack. "Hello," I answered.
"Crane, it's Gerald. I heard from Mr. Crenshaw a few minutes ago," he said.
"What did he have to say?"
"The appraisal of his property was completed and delivered to him on Wednesday, so he's had a couple of days to consider it. He called this morning to say that he would accept the value of the appraisal as a sales price, if you were still interested in buying," Gerald said.
"What did the appraised value turn out to be?" Gerald gave me the number and the total number of acres in the deal. The value was close to what I had anticipated per acre. "Sounds fair," I said. "Are there any special considerations that he wants?"
"He didn't mention any, and I specifically asked him. He did say that he and his wife would like the sale to go through before the end of the year. That's going to be a tight schedule, but I think we can make it. The biggest obstacle will be the land survey. All I need from you is a go ahead and I'll get things put in motion. I have the real estate sales contract ready to go with that price filled in. I can probably get his and his wife's signatures on it before the day is out, unless they want to have their own lawyer look it over. I can use your power of attorney, unless you want to sign it. I made the assumption that the title of the farm would be held in CBJ Properties."
"Yes, all the other farm land out there is owned by CBJ," I said. "Go ahead with the purchase. This is going to make Charlie a very happy farmer. Let me know when the Crenshaws sign the contract. Thanks, Gerald."
"You're welcome. You know I like nothing better than spending other people's money," he chuckled. "I'll call you as soon as I know anything."
On a whim, I made a call to Donald to see if he was available for lunch. Unfortunately, he was going to be tied up, so I decided to go visit the ASEC office to see how things were going there. I was sure that I could entice some of them to go to lunch with me, especially if I were buying. On my way to the garage, I passed Hildy and Gilda in the kitchen and told them where I was going so they wouldn't expect me for lunch.
Kenneth Bering, the office manager, greeted me as I entered the office. "It's good to see you again. You should come in more often."
"Thanks, Kenneth, is anybody here?"
"Carol and Paul are here and I expect Darcie to be back anytime now. The rest are out checking on some of the clients. Darcie went to try to straighten out a problem we've been experiencing with a company that provides some of the prosthetics. They were great to begin with, but recently there have been problems," Kenneth said.
"I'm sure that Darcie will put the fear of God in them. She has a way of making her point," I said. "I think I'll go interrupt Carol."
I found her at her desk, frowning at a file in front of her. "If you keep frowning like that you're going to get wrinkles."
"Too late," she said, coming around the desk and giving me a hug. "Long time, no see."
"You know how things go. With a house full of kids, it's hard to get away," I said. "By the way, has your brother arrived?"
"No, he's been delayed. He's now supposed to arrive the first week in December," she said.
"What about the wedding? Are you going to postpone it from next week?"
"Yes, it's going to be a small affair with a few friends. Kelly doesn't have any family, so postponing it won't cause any problems for him. I want my brother there," she said.
"I don't blame you, family is important," I said. "If you don't have any plans for lunch, as soon as Darcie gets back, I'll take everybody to lunch."
Paul joined us a few minutes later and we chatted for another ten minutes or so before Darcie returned. From the frown on her face, I could tell that her meeting with the prosthetics supplier had not been pleasant.
"This is the day for frowns," I said, as she joined us. "First Carol and now you. How about I buy you lunch? Maybe that will cheer you up."
"That company," Darcie fumed, "if there were another one within 50 miles that could supply us, I'd ditch them."
"Come on. Let's go to that Mexican restaurant down the street. Maybe a margarita will wash the bad taste out of your mouth from the meeting and you can tell us all about it."
We had Kenneth roll the phones to his cell phone and the four of us headed for the restaurant. He left a note for the others saying that they were welcome to join us at the restaurant when they returned, if they hadn't had lunch.
With our orders given to the waiter and the margaritas delivered, I said, "Tell us what is going on with Witherspoon Prosthetics."
Darcie took a sip of her drink before beginning, "I've had some complaints from a few of our clients about the quality of the prosthetics and the service they have been receiving from them when repairs were needed. When we contracted with them to be the preferred supplier, we insisted that any artificial limb that they provided would be of the highest quality. At first, the product they provided was first class. Lately the complaints have been that some of the parts cracked easily and when the limb was returned for maintenance and repair it took two or three weeks for them to be returned."
"Did you notice any particular problem at the facility?" I asked.
"There was a new manager and when I looked at the production facility, it didn't seem to have as many employees as it had in the past. The manager did not impress me. I asked to see the owner, but I was told that he was not available," she said. "I thought that was a little strange, since he had always been there before when I visited. I told Wilson, that's the manager's name, Wilson Brown, that I wanted to talk to Mr. Witherspoon and would he have him call me. He said he'd see if he could contact the owner."
"How much business do we give these people?" I asked.
Darcie looked at Kenneth and shrugged. "In the last six months since we started providing this service to our clients, they have received around $200,000. I can get you the exact amount when we get back to the office," Kenneth said.
"I'd like an itemized list of all the equipment that we have provided and the amount we paid for each," I said.
"No problem," Kenneth said. "I record each item before I pass the invoice on to Darcie to authorize payment. I'll print you off a copy."
Our meal arrived and conversation was curtailed while we ate.
"Paul," I said, "you have been awfully quiet."
"I don't often deal with cases where prosthetics are involved. Most of mine are of the adoption assistance variety and once in a while a case where medical or surgical procedures are indicated," Paul said.
"Carol, how about you?" I asked.
"Pretty much the same as Paul. I've only had one case that involved am artificial arm and this was early on when we were just beginning to help with that sort of thing. As far as I know the young man was pleased with his arm and hasn't reported any problems."
"Darcie, I'm going to do some investigating on the company and see if they are having financial difficulties. If so, that might explain the use of lower grade products in their prosthetics. It could also be that they have just gotten greedy and wanted to increase their profit margins. Continue to press them to provide our clients with the best possible prosthetics," I said. "It may take me a few days to find out what is going on."
We finished our lunch, I paid the bill and we walked back to the office. It was a little early to pick up the kids from school when I got back to the house, but I decided to drive there anyway. I got into the van and headed to the Academy. I figured that I could spend some time with the headmaster discussing school business. After all, I was a member of the school board and the next meeting was scheduled for the second week in December.
I had to wait a few minutes until Mr. Pierce was off the phone. We had a pleasant conversation about the school and some of the issues that would be discussed at the next board meeting. As the time approached for the youngest to be dismissed, I stood up, shook his hand and went to see if Peter and William were waiting at the designated area. They were, and when Peter saw me, he ran to me and gave me a big hug. I got a hug from William as well.
"How was school today? Did you learn a lot?" I asked, returning Peter's hug.
"Uh huh. I got a gold star on my writing paper. Do you want to see it?" he bubbled.
"Of course, I do." He unfolded a paper that I noticed he had been holding and thrust it toward me.
"See the star?"
"Yes, I do. I'm very proud of you," I said to the beaming boy.
I looked up and saw TJ walking out of the building and to my great relief, Alex was walking beside him. I was tremendously relieved that Alex and his family were safe, but at the same time I felt a little ashamed that I had hoped that some other family had been murdered instead.
"Bye, Alex," TJ said, as Alex walked toward a large, black Mercedes. The man holding the door open was a man with a build resembling a pro wrestler.
"I see that Alex was in school today," I said to TJ.
"Yeah, he had to go to the dentist yesterday and the dentist gave him a shot in his mouth and he talked funny. His dad let him stay home with their housekeeper. He had two fillings. I'm glad I don't have to get fillings. He said the drill wasn't any fun," TJ grimaced.
"You guys have been lucky so far. Brushing your teeth twice a day is a good way to avoid having dental problems," I said.
Jeannie and Jenny soon joined us followed a few minutes later by the twins and Chris.
"Dad," Chris began, "can we have some friends over to play tennis on Saturday?"
"Who and how many?" I asked.
"Barry, Tommy and Brad," Lenny volunteered.
"That's fine by me, but have their parents call me to make sure it is okay with them."
The three of them ran off to find their friends. About the time that Joel and a couple of his friends approached, two parents were heading our way with two young boys.
"Mr. Johnson," one of the parents said, "I'm Helen Brewster. I understand that your sons have invited Brad to your house on Saturday to play tennis."
"It's nice to meet you, Mrs. Brewster. Yes, I just learned that they invited your son and it's fine with me."
"I'm Mildred Bannister, Tommy's mom."
"It's nice to meet you as well. Both of your sons are more than welcome to come on Saturday. The boys have their music lessons in the morning, but say around one o'clock would be fine for them to arrive. Have them bring their swim suits in case they get hot and want to cool off in the pool."
"How do we get to your place?" Mildred asked.
I gave the two mothers the directions to the house before I got the kids loaded into the van.
"Are Barry's parents going to call? I asked.
"He rides a van home," Larry said. "He said his mom would call later, after he gets home."
"Dad," Joel began, "some of the guys are going to play golf tomorrow morning and they want me to go. Is it all right?"
"Sure. What time are you going to play? And where?"
"Jim has a couple of tee times starting at nine o'clock. We're playing at River Crossing. There are going to be eight of us and we're playing skins."
"You're playing for money?"
"Yeah, but it's only a quarter a hole, so the most I could lose is $4.50, if I lost every hole," Joel said. "I don't intend to lose every hole. We're going to draw for each foursome, so I don't know what my competition will be."
"I'm not thrilled about you gambling, but I guess as long as the stakes are not that high it's okay. Just don't let yourself get talked into increasing the stakes. It's not that you can't afford it. Gambling can become an addiction and it always starts out small," I cautioned.
"I know, dad. It just makes the game more interesting it you have an incentive to take chances to pull off a difficult shot or make a long putt. It's also fun to rib the other guys."
"What about your music lesson?" I asked.
"I've been meaning to talk to you about that. I enjoy playing my guitar, but it's not like I'm ever going to be a professional guitarist. The same goes for the piano. I know enough to play for my own enjoyment."
"I think we had better continue this discussion at home," I said.
We did and determined that although he enjoyed music and playing his instruments, taking more lessons was something that he didn't really care to continue. "I'll do it if you want me to, dad. It's not that I hate the lessons, it's just that I don't really care to take, or see the need to take more lessons."
"Son, you're sixteen years old and mature enough to make your own decision on this matter. If you want to stop your lessons, I'll accept that," I said.
"That's what I'm going to do. Thanks, dad," he said.
"Were you able to find a radio that you liked for Jimmy?"
"I was going to ask you if I could use your credit card so I could order it over the internet. I found one on Amazon that I thought he would really like and it's not all that expensive."
"Okay, when I get the rest of the boys settled in for the night, I'll come to your room and we can order it. Now let's go see if your brothers left any snacks for us."
"Good idea," he said, walking quickly to the kitchen area.
While we had been talking, Donald had come home with Lenore, but had not disturbed Joel and my conversation. The boys were finishing up with their apple crisp and were heading out the door to take care of their dogs when we found dishes of the snack that Gilda had saved for us.
"I had to guard these with my life," she said smiling. "I do declare those boys would have eaten twice as much as I had fixed and then licked their plates."
"A credit to your cooking," Donald said.
I had just finished my snack when the phone rang. It was Jack. I told him I didn't need his services since what I was going to ask him to do was no longer necessary. We chatted a few minutes before saying goodbye.
I was somewhat surprised a little later when the gate buzzer sounded and it was the Lees. They were early. The lessons didn't usually start until after we had eaten supper. I activated the gate opener to let them in.
As we were waiting for them to drive up to the front door, the phone rang and I picked it up.
"This is Jennifer Lake. Is Mr. Johnson there?"
"I'm Crane Johnson. What can I do for you Mrs. Lake?"
"I'm Barry's mother. He said that he had been invited to your house tomorrow to play tennis."
"That's correct. He and a couple of his friends were invited by my boys to spend the afternoon here playing tennis, swimming and probably roughhousing with the dogs."
"I wanted to make sure that you were aware of his invitation. He really wants to go."
"We're looking forward to his visit. The boys have music lessons in the morning, so it would be convenient if you could bring him here around one o'clock. Have him bring his tennis racket and a swimsuit and he'll be all set for the day. Let me tell you how to get here," I said, and gave her the directions.
I hung up the phone and went to inquire why the Lees had arrived so early. I found them talking to Donald and Manfred in the living room.
"Crane," Donald said, "Conner was about to tell us of an opportunity he has. Conner, now that Crane is here, tell us about this opportunity."
"I'm afraid it's not good news for you," Conner said. "I've been offered the position of organist at a large cathedral in Atlanta. They want me to start on the first of December. Their Director of Music heard me give an organ concert in a church in Decatur last spring. He talked to me after the concert and asked for one of my cards. He called me two weeks ago and asked that I come and play for the Deacons of the church. He called me yesterday and offered me the position. Susan and I talked it over last night and we decided that it was too good an opportunity to pass up."
"We're going to miss you, and I'm sure that the kids will, but it is too good to turn down. Will you be able to give the lessons next week as well?" I asked.
"Yes," Susan answered. "It's the last ones we'll be able to give, however."
"We were going to tell you that we probably would not be at home that next weekend, anyway. That's Thanksgiving vacation for the kids and we were thinking of going on a trip," Donald said.
Manfred spoke up, "Do you know of any other piano teacher or teachers that would be willing to do what you all have been doing these past several months? I would like for Jeannie and Ginny to continue with their lessons. They have been making great progress since you started giving them lessons."
"Let us contact some of our colleagues and see if any would be interested. We'll make some calls on Monday. We should have some names by the time we come back next weekend," Susan said. "Since my major area of study in college was piano, I know a number who do give private lessons."
As we were finishing up our conversation, Lenore came in and climbed up on her dad's lap. She waited until the Lees went to their room to prepare for the lessons to be given later. "Daddy," she murmured, "can I go to Jeannie and Ginny's house to sleep."
Donald looked at Manfred who was nodding his head. "Did Jeannie or Ginny invite you?"
"Uh huh, Ginny said she wanted me to come to her house and play with her dolls," Lenore said, looking into her dad's eyes.
"Well, I guess that would be okay. You've got to promise to be good."
"I will, daddy," she said, giving Donald a wet kiss on the cheek and then jumping down from his lap.
"Her daddy could never say no to her," I said, talking to Manfred.
"I'm afraid that I'm guilty of that as well," Manfred said.
After we had eaten supper, we had a brief family meeting to discuss our Thanksgiving plans. The idea of flying to Las Vegas was greeted with approval from all the boys. Lenore didn't look as if she was happy about it.
"What's the matter, sweetie," Donald asked his daughter.
"I won't have nobody to play with," she pouted. "Can Ginny and Jeannie come, too?"
"Why don't you go ask their mom and dad?" Donald urged her.
"Okay," she brightened, and ran off to find Hildy and Manfred. She was soon back holding onto their hands.
"What's this about the girls going to Las Vegas?" Hildy asked. "Lenore wasn't too clear about the matter."
Donald chuckled and then told them of our plans. "We are going to Las Vegas over the Thanksgiving holidays. Lenore wasn't too happy that she wouldn't have any girls to play with and asked if your girls could go. I told her to ask you. You all are welcome to come along with us. The plane will hold 16 people and there will only be 15 if everybody goes. That includes Gilda of course."
"Where would we all stay?" Manfred asked.
"I think I can arrange that," Donald said. "I've already reserved a place for the ten of us, and I'm sure I can arrange a place for you five as well. All you have to say is you're going and I'll make a phone call."
Gilda had followed Hildy and Manfred to the family meeting and had heard all that had been going on. Hildy gave her sister a questioning look.
"Sounds like fun," Gilda said. "I've never been to Las Vegas."
"I guess it's settled," Manfred said, getting a nod from his wife.
Without hesitating, Donald picked up his cell phone and dialed a number. "Luther, you know that unit below the one I've reserved," Donald said, after he had identified himself. "Is it still available? ... It is? Great. Is that a three or four bedroom unit? Excellent. Reserve it for me the same time frame. ... Thanks, I'll see you when we get there."
Donald had been pacing as he was talking on the phone. He ended the call and turned to Manfred. "Done," he said. "The four bedroom unit below the unit we've rented is now available for you. It's completely furnished with kitchen and laundry facilities. We have a cook that comes in every morning to fix our breakfasts and you're welcome to join us. We might have to eat in shifts, but we can work that out. They will be fixing our Thanksgiving dinner as well. I'll need to know what your meal plans are before we leave so that I can let the cooks know how to plan."
"Okay, people, I think Mr. and Mrs. Lee are waiting to start the lessons. Whoever is first up, head out for your lessons," I said.
The twins and Chris were excited when I got to their room to tuck them in for the night. They could hardly wait for their friends to get here, but there were still music lessons to take before then. I hoped that they would settle down and get some sleep before long. I doubt that the Lees would appreciate sleepy students in the morning.
"Hi, dad," Joel said, as I entered his room. Normally I would have knocked on the door, but he had left it open, so I just walked in. "I'll call you again tomorrow night," he said into the phone. "Bye."
"I assume that was Jimmy?"
"Yeah, he just got home from work. He's trying to get in as many hours at the store as he can. He only has about a month before he's off to Houston," Joel said.
"I know you're going to miss him," I said.
"Yeah," he said, wistfully.
"Are you ready to order that radio for his graduation present?"
"Yes, I have the site up on my computer. I think I know how to do this," he said, and started entering all the information as to where to send the package. I handed him my credit card and watched as he entered that information, as well. "I think that's all ready. There," he said as he clicked on the submit button.
"How long did they say it would take to get here?" I asked.
"Eight to ten days after it's processed. That's going to be during the Thanksgiving holiday, so I bet it won't get here until close to December first," he answered. "That's okay. Jimmy doesn't graduate until the eighteenth, so there's plenty of time."
"I think it's going to be a long day tomorrow," I said, sitting down on the couch next to Donald with my glass of wine. "There will be ten boys here in the afternoon. Are you up to this madhouse?"
"I'm sure we'll survive. Have you thought about having the boys' families here for a cookout tomorrow evening?" Donald asked.
"I thought about it, but couldn't make up my mind if it was worth all the extra effort. I have no idea how many people would be involved with those three boys' families. We could end up with 25 to 30 people to feed. Of course, I'm counting Hildy and Manfred's family, and Gilda."
"If we did something simple, like burgers, hot dogs and bratwurst, it wouldn't be all that much work," Donald said. "Throw in some chips and vegetable sticks and maybe some ice cream for dessert and we're all set."
"I suppose we could do it. I'll talk to Gilda and Hildy in the morning and get their thoughts on how much work it would be for them." After a pause, I continued, "Well, now that I've finished my wine, I think I'll get ready for bed."