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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Chapter 2

"Ms. Garver, that would be a very unwise thing to do," I said. "I think my lawyer would have a field day questioning you on the stand. By the way, do you know that filing false documents with the court is a felony in Texas?"

"Whatever do you mean by that?" she asked.

"Let's get to the matter of Luke Fredrick," I said. "He has alleged that he was hit by his foster mother and thrown out. That is my concern and it should be yours as well. Failure by you on your part to investigate the allegations could lead to further abuse, if Luke is placed back into that foster home. I tend to believe that Luke is telling the truth. I can think of no other reason for him to be walking down a road approximately three miles from the foster home and crying. Can you give me a good reason for that?"

I heard the gate buzzer and covered the phone's mouthpiece. "Gilda, would you let that car in. It should be Antonio Ricci, an attorney I've asked to assist Luke." She said she would and I went back to listening to what Gloria Garver was saying.

"I can only guess that he ran away from his foster home," she was saying. "It wouldn't be the first time."

"Has his foster parent reported that to your office?"

"I haven't seen any report of that as yet. I have several messages that I haven't had time to go through, but I'm sure that she did. I've placed a number of children with her over the years and have found her to be very reliable."

"Ms. Garver, I think it would be wise for you to come to our home and speak with Luke in person," I said. "I'm sure that his lawyer would like to speak to you when you get here."

"Is his court-appointed lawyer there?"

"No, he has retained outside counsel," I said. "He is an associate of Cross and Associates in Austin. I think he will have a number of questions for you. May we expect you later this morning?"

"I don't think that's possible, I have a lot of paperwork to handle this morning," she said.

"So, paperwork is more important than Luke," I said, sarcastically. "I'll let his attorney know. Goodbye, Ms. Garver."

"Wait, wait, wait," she said in a panic. "Give me directions and I'll be there in an hour."

I gave her directions and ended the call. I turned and saw a young man standing a few feet in front of me.

"You must be Antonio Ricci," I said, offering my hand to him. "I'm Crane Johnson."

"It's very nice to meet you," he said, shaking my hand. "Mr. Cross told me a lot about you."

"All good, I hope."

"As a matter of fact, yes."

"Here's what's going on," I said. "I was on the phone just now with Luke's caseworker and she threatened to have me arrested for abducting him." I went on to relate everything that had happened since we found Luke on the road and brought him home. "What I would like for you to do is to act as his lawyer, at least while Ms. Gloria Garver is here. I will pay for any expenses you may incur."

"I will have to discuss the representation with Mr. Cross, but for today, I will be happy to represent him," Antonio said. "Now, I would like to meet my 'client'."

"He's swimming with my other boys and our neighbors' girls and my partner's daughter. If you will follow me, we'll see if we can get him out of the pool."

Arriving at poolside we saw that the kids were having a spirited game of water polo. At least that was as close as I could come to describing what they were doing.

"Hi, dad," Chris hollered, as he swatted the ball back to the five opposing players.

"Time out, guys," I said. "Mr. Ricci and I need to speak with Luke." While Luke was climbing out of the pool and drying off, I introduced Antonio to Manfred.

Luke approached slowly with his head down. "Did I do something wrong?"

"Not at all, son," I said and put my arm around his shoulder. "This is Mr. Ricci."

I handed Luke a dollar bill and whispered in his ear, "Give this dollar to Mr. Ricci and say, "Will you be my lawyer." You can do that can't you?"

"Yes, sir," Luke said, and did exactly what I asked him to do.

"Thank you, Luke," Antonio said accepting the dollar bill. "I'll be happy to be your lawyer. Your caseworker is going to come here soon and I need to talk to you before she gets here. I think it would be better if you put on some clothes other than your swimsuit."

"She's not going to make me go back there, is she?" Luke asked, with tears welling up in his eyes.

"That is something we will be discussing with her, but I can be fairly certain that you will not be going back to that foster home," Antonio said.

The three of us walked back into the house. "Gilda, are Luke's clothes ready?" I asked.

"Yes, I just took them out of the dryer and ironed them," she said, pointing to a pile of clothes on the breakfast room table.

Luke grabbed the clothes and ran up the stairs to the bedroom he stayed in last night. A few minutes later he came down the stairs much slower than he went up.

"Is there some place where I can talk to Luke in private?" Antonio asked.

"You can use the library. It's also my office," I said. "I'll let you know if his caseworker arrives before you're finished." I showed them to the office and went to talk to Gilda and pour myself a cup of coffee.

About thirty-five minutes later the gate buzzer sounded. Although I was fairly certain who it would be, I still pushed the button for the intercom and asked, "How can I help you?"

"I'm Gloria Garver, Luke's caseworker."

"Who is the other person in the car with you?"

"Gary Everett, he's a CPS attorney," she answered.

I pushed the button to open the gate, and then went by the office to let them know Ms. Garver and Mr. Everett had arrived and continued on to the front door. It had been several years since I had a run in with Gary Everett. I wondered if he had mellowed out since then.

I stepped out onto the front step just as the car drove up. A rather plump woman, dressed in a somewhat garish, flowered dress, stepped out of the car. Gary Everett also opened his door and got out.

"Where's Luke?" she demanded, even before she had ascended the steps.

I ignored her question and extended my hand to her, which she ignored. "I'm Crane Johnson, we talked on the phone." I then turned to Everett and did the same. He at least had the courtesy to shake my hand. "It's been a couple of years since we last met," I said.

Ms. Garver attempted to push past me to get to the door, but I successfully blocked her efforts. "Understand me, Ms. Garver, you are here on my sufferance. You will, at all times, conduct yourself in an appropriate manner. Do we understand each other?"

"Yes, yes, of course," she said impatiently. "Where's Luke? I need to speak with him."

"At the moment he is conferring with his attorney," I said. "I have notified them of your arrival and they should join us in due time. In the meantime, may I offer you a cup of coffee?" I opened the front door and went inside, motioning them to follow me.

"That would be nice," Gary said, as he entered the house after Gloria.

As I had expected, Gilda had laid out coffee cups and a plate of cookies. I sat down at the table and indicated for them to do the same. Gilda brought the coffee pot and began pouring coffee for each of us.

"Let me explain to both of you just exactly how we came to have Luke with us." I went on to relate in detail all that had happened since the time we stopped on the road where we found Luke up to the time his new lawyer had taken him into my office. I had to hold up my hand several times during my explanation to halt any questions until I was finished. "Now, if you have any questions, I will do my best to answer them."

"Why didn't you call the sheriff?" Gloria asked.

"And why would I have done that? I had no reason to believe that he had broken any laws. Having had my own run-ins with CPS, I thought it best to notify them so that they could take appropriate actions. Their appropriate actions were to have me take Luke to the office where they would make up a bed on the floor for him to sleep. I found that to be totally unacceptable."

"What are your intentions for Luke?" Gary Everett asked.

At that moment, Antonio Ricci and Luke came into the breakfast room.

"I can answer that," Antonio said. "First of all, Luke will not be going back to that foster home until there has been a thorough investigation of his allegations that he was battered by a foster parent there. Second, until that time, he will be placed somewhere his safety can be assured. Third, I will need to see all the records of your interactions with him since he has been placed in foster care. And lastly, I will need an explanation of why no attempt has been made to contact any of his living relatives."

"As you well know, whatever your name is, all those records are private," Ms. Garver said, with a smug look on her face.

"My name is Antonio Ricci and as you well know there is such a thing as a subpoena in case the records are not produced voluntarily," he said. Turning to Gary, he continued, "Mr. Everett, I believe that we are both involved in the same case this afternoon."

"Yes, I believe we are. It's good to meet you," Gary said. "I didn't know you were going to be involved in this matter."

"It was a last minute affair," Antonio said. "Let's discuss how we can come to an amicable arrangement for Luke's accommodations. I would be willing to stipulate that his present ones are satisfactory. Don't you all agree?"

"I can't possibly agree to that," Gloria said.

"And why not?" Antonio asked.

"It's just not suitable. It's rumored that Mr. Johnson is unmarried and lives with another man," Gloria said.

Antonio held up his hand to me before saying, "Your point being?"

"Well, that's not the kind of environment that Luke should be exposed to," she said, looking smug.

"Oh, you mean the kind of environment where Mr. Johnson is raising six boys, one of whom graduated from a very prestigious, private high school in three years and is now enrolled at Rice University. Where the children have a swimming pool, a tennis court, a running track and a library full of classic literature. I think I also heard a dog or two for pets. That's all I have seen in the short time I have been here. There may be more that I haven't seen. What a pity it would be to be placed in such an environment," Antonio said with as much sarcasm as he could muster.

"But Mr. Johnson is not a certified foster home," Gloria said.

"That's true," I said. "But, my neighbors next door are. I'm sure that they would be willing to accommodate Luke until the matter of his permanent placement can be arranged."

I hadn't noticed that Hildy had arrived since my back was to the rear door.

"Gilda has been telling me about what has been going on," she said. "I would have to discuss it with Manfred, but I don't think he would object if we accepted Luke for a temporary placement. We have a spare bedroom that he could use."

"Luke, do you think you would be happy living next door, at least for a while?" I asked.

"Is that man out at the swimming pool Manfred?" he asked.

"Yes, he is, son," Hildy answered.

"He's nice," Luke said.

"I think so," Hildy smiled. "Let's you and I go talk to him and see what he says."


"I haven't said it's okay," Gloria said.

"Stuff it, Gloria," Gary said. "You know you've been beaten. Let it go. Mr. Johnson and I have interacted before and I know the resources he can bring when he is inclined to do so. You can be sure that you would come out on the short end. I know Mr. and Mrs. Strasser from when they adopted two young girls. They will do just fine. Do the paperwork and in the meantime, I think it would be okay for Luke to remain where he is. Mr. Johnson, thanks for the coffee and cookies. We'll be on our way now." He rose from the table and gave Gloria a frown until she also rose from her chair.

I escorted them to the door and watched as they drove down the driveway and through the gate. I went back in and activated the gate closer.

"Manny is thrilled," Hildy said. "He loves our girls with all his heart, but since his son was killed, there has been something missing in his life. I think Luke might just be that something, even if it's only temporary."

"What's this about CPS not trying to make contact with Luke's relatives?" I asked Antonio.

"Luke said the only relative he had was an uncle. As I understand it, the uncle is his mother's brother. He didn't know where his uncle lived. He hadn't seen him since he was placed in foster care," Antonio said. "All he knows is that when he last saw him, he was wearing an army uniform. To answer your question, I made a call to a close friend at the CPS office and she did a quick review of Luke's file and could not find any record of a search being made."

"Did he give you his uncle's name?" I asked.

"Yes, he said his name is Mel Wilson. He didn't know a middle name or if Mel were short for Melvin or some other variation. The Army should have records of him even if he is not still in the service. Luke said he was some kind of officer because he had silver bars on his collar. He couldn't remember if there were one or two bars. If there were two, then it probably means that he is a career man. That would make it easier to trace him if he were."

As we were talking, six swimsuit clad boys, three swimsuit clad girls, one fully clothed boy and one swimsuit clad man came in through the patio door. "They were getting hungry," Manfred said in way of a greeting.

"And I suppose you weren't?" Hildy said as she followed them in the door.

"Well, now that you mention it ...," Manfred said, giving Hildy a peck on the cheek.

"Lunch will be ready in fifteen minutes," Gilda called from the kitchen.

"Boys, make a quick run through the shower and get dressed," I said, pointing to the stairs. "Don't dawdle."

"Come on girls," Hildy said. "Let's go up to Lenore's room. I brought some clothes for you and Lenore can get some of her own. Manny, yours are over there."

"Manfred, you can use the master bath or the spare bedroom. The choice is yours."

"Thanks," he said, picked up the clothes that Hildy had brought and headed for the master bedroom.

"I'll be going now," Antonio said. "I have some work to do to get the paperwork ready for the judge to sign concerning Luke. I'm hopeful that I can. It's not that I don't trust CPS, I just want to make sure that they follow what was agreed to here."

"You're more than welcome to stay for lunch," I said. "You can also use my office. The wireless network is open, if you need to get to a printer or the internet."

"Thank you, that will work," he said. "I'll get my laptop from the car."

"Manfred, can I see you for a minute?" I asked when he returned.

"Sure, what's up?"

"Since Luke's going to be living with you for a while, I thought it would be appropriate for him to be enrolled at Corinthian. What do you think?"

"I was going to ask you the same thing," Manfred said. "Isn't it a little late to get him registered?"

"I think I know someone who just might have enough influence to make it happen," I said.

"Hmmm, I wonder who that could be. Maybe someone on the school board?" Manfred said, rubbing his chin as if in deep thought and then broke into a grin.

"I'll call the school after lunch and we get more information from Luke about his current school. The secretary should be there this close to the start of school."

After lunch we got all the information from Luke about the school that he went to last year and his grade level. With that, I went into my bedroom, since Antonio was using my office, and called Corinthian. The phone was answered by someone I didn't know who identified herself as Clarisse.

"Clarisse, this is Crane Johnson. I have a student that I wish to enroll for the coming school year."

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Clarisse said. "Enrollment is closed. All of the classes are full."

"Please let me speak with Headmaster Pierce," I said.

"He's awfully busy at the moment. May I take a message?"

"Just tell him who's calling. I'm sure he will take my call." Less than a minute later, Justin Pierce came on the line.

"Crane, to what do I owe the pleasure?" he asked.

"Hello, Justin. I have a young boy who has just been placed in the custody of my neighbors. Their girls attend Corinthian and I wanted to see if he could be enrolled with the rest of the family."

"I think we can make room," he said. "Just give Clarisse all the information and she will see to it that he gets properly enrolled. Clarisse is our new attendance clerk. You haven't met her yet, I assume. Clarisse's sitting in for my secretary while she is at a meeting to learn about some new reporting that the state in it's wisdom is requiring this year."

Clarisse came back on the line. "I'm sorry, Mr. Johnson. I'm new and didn't know that you were on the school board. Give me the information and I'll take care of it."

I did and then went to let Manfred and Hildy know that it was all settled.

"I guess that means we need to go shopping for some school uniforms for Luke," Hildy said.

"We also need to go to his former foster home and retrieve his clothes and other personal possessions," Manfred added. "Why don't you do that and I'll take Luke to get the school uniforms."

"Okay," Hildy said. "Just don't get carried away buying things other than the school uniforms."

"Now, would I do that?" Manfred said, trying to look crushed.

"Yes, you would, you old goat," Hildy said, patting his cheek.

"Would you like for me to go with you to get Luke's stuff?" I asked Hildy.

"I don't think that will be necessary," Hildy said. "I don't know the woman, but you can bet that I can handle her. She'll probably be helping me load out Luke's things when I get through with her. If that woman hit Luke and threw him out, I don't know if I will be able to control myself. Give me the address and I'll be on my way."

"I have no doubt that you can handle yourself," I said and gave her the address that Luke had given me.

Manfred and I walked upstairs where the boys had gone after lunch. Manfred went over to where Luke was watching the twins playing one of their X-Box games. "Do you know how to play?"

"No, I've only seen them on TV," Luke answered.

"We'll have to have them show you how. Mr. Johnson has arranged for you to go to the same school that everybody else goes to," Manfred said. "That means we have to go get you some school uniforms. How would you like to go shopping with me? Maybe we could stop somewhere afterwards and get some ice cream. How does that sound?"

Luke's eyes lit up and responded with an enthusiastic, "Yeah."

"Okay, let's go. Hildy is going to go get your other stuff from that foster home you were in."

"Ms. Romans isn't gonna like that," Luke said.

"Let us worry about Ms. Romans," Manfred said, leading Luke down the stairs.

I watched the video game players for a while before I shook my head and went back downstairs. I still could not see the attraction of video games. I went to the kitchen and poured another cup of coffee and sat down at the table where Gilda was writing up her grocery list.

"I wish I were a fly on the wall when your sister confronts Ms. Romans," I said.

"That would be fun," Gilda admitted. "My sister has a heart of gold, but you mess with or hurt a child and she is a tiger and would tear you apart in a minute. She's told me how much she owes you for having hired her to look after the boys. It saved her from a life of loneliness. She loves her girls, but she also loves your boys."

"The boys love her, too. I do as well. They think of her as a grandmother," I said. "You're included in that as well."

A short time later the twins and Chris came down the stairs with their tennis rackets and a can of balls. "We're gonna play tennis," one of them hollered as they ran out the door.

I was on my way upstairs to check on the other six, when Donald came in the back door carrying a large, department store, shopping bag. "You're home early," I said.

"Yeah," he said. "I had to get away. I hate it when there are personnel problems." He went to the bedroom to change clothes and I continued on upstairs.

TJ and Jeannie were competing in one of the video games. Peter and William were their cheering section. Ginny and Lenore were not in the vicinity, so I went looking for them. I found them in Lenore's bedroom playing with some of her toys.

"Your dad is home, Lenore," I said.

Just as I said that, Donald came up behind me and hugged me from behind.

"Hi, pumpkin, have you got a hug for me?" he said to Lenore.

In response, she jumped up from the floor where she had been playing and leapt into his arms and planted a kiss on his cheek.

"No fair, you cheated," TJ said in a loud voice.

"Did not," Jeannie said, giggling. "Girls are just better than boys."

"No they're not," TJ said, joining in with her giggles.

"Dad," William said, noticing his dad for the first time. "Jeannie's car beat TJ's"

"Next time maybe TJ's car will beat her's," Donald said, picking up his son and giving him a hug.

He put William down and turned to me. "Have we added a new son?"

"Not exactly," I said. "Hildy and Manfred did, though."

"How did that happen?"

"I don't have a valid foster care certificate any more, but they do."

"Interesting," he said. "I'll bet we see a lot of Luke regardless. Where is he, by the way?"

"Luke and Manfred went into town to get school uniforms for him," I said. "Hildy went to retrieve Luke's things from his old foster home."

"Ooh, that I would like to see," Donald laughed. "That reminds me, I went shopping for Lenore's school uniforms since she will be starting kindergarten there this year. I'm sure I got the right size, but I'll ask Gilda if she will have Lenore try them on to make sure, just in case I have to return them for a different size."

When we reached the bottom of the stairs, we went to find Gilda. Donald made his request to her and she said she would. Then I asked her if the arrangements for the get-together on Sunday had been finalized.

"Yes, I think we have things pretty much in hand," she said. "I think the only thing that's left to be sorted out is where we are going to place the food. Rosie said she would check with Charlie to see if he had a couple of saw horses and some planks that could be used as a temporary serving table."

"Do we have enough places for everybody to sit?" I asked.

"The three farms have a total of four picnic tables, which should make seats for 24 and Rosie said they have a card table and four chairs so we have enough now for 28. She's going to check with Jessica to see if she has one. If not, I know that Hildy has one we can take. That's good since there will now be 31 of us with Luke."

"I don't like that woman," Hildy said, stomping into the house. "It was all I could do to keep from slapping her into next week."

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