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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.
This story is copyrighted by Ted Louis, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.
"Luke, how's my favorite nephew?" Mel said, giving his nephew a bear hug and a kiss on the forehead.
It took a moment before Luke was able to respond. "You don't have any other nephews. You're my favorite uncle," he said with a giggle.
"You've grown since I last saw you. And you weigh a ton," Mel said, putting Luke down. "You must have rocks in your pockets." That brought another giggle from Luke.
"Ms. Hildy and Mr. Manfred fix lots of good food to eat," he said.
"Is there somewhere I can talk to my nephew alone?" Mel asked.
I nodded my head and showed them to my office. "Don't be too long," I said. "Gilda will have supper ready before long."
"I just have a few things to ask and then we'll be ready to eat," Mel said. "If I know young boys, I'm sure Luke will be ready."
"What do you think?" I said to the assembled adults.
"I think he should definitely stay a part of Luke's life," Hildy said. That brought expressions of agreement from the rest of them.
I went to get the rest of the boys and have them come in to get ready for supper. At least this time they had not been wrestling with the dogs, but they still needed a good hand washing.
Mel and Luke emerged from my office a few minutes before the rest of the boys had come down from cleaning up. I suggested that Mel take Luke into the guest room to have him wash his hands.
It wasn't long before we were all assembled in the dining room. Mel was introduced to the rest of the boys and the three girls before all 16 of us sat down at the table to eat the meal that Gilda had prepared. It consisted of a huge ham, sweet potatoes, green beans and bread rolls. There was cole slaw for the kids and a mixed lettuce salad for the adults. After stuffing ourselves, Hildy brought out one of her famous chocolate cakes. The adults groaned, but the boys' eyes looked on it with what might be described as lust. They hurried to finish taking the dinner dishes to the kitchen before returning to their places, waiting for Hildy to serve them a slice of the cake. While the youngsters enjoyed the cake, the adults settled for a cup of coffee.
"Do you always eat like this?" Mel asked as we sat drinking our coffee.
"We always have a substantial meal in the evening," I said. "Because we have to leave so early in the morning to get the kids to school on time, they don't have time for a big breakfast. The lunch served at school is nourishing, but it doesn't last them until supper. Of course, they have to have a snack as soon as they get home from school."
"What school do they go to?" Mel asked.
"All the kids, including Luke, are enrolled at Corinthian Academy," I said. "It's a private, nondenominational Christian school."
"That must be expensive if all of them go there," Mel remarked.
"It's very highly rated for its educational excellence," Donald put in. "Whatever the cost, it's worth it."
"Manfred, may I call you that?" Mel asked.
"Of course," Manfred answered.
"You are paying for Luke's tuition?"
"Yes, why do you ask?"
"It just seems to be an unusual expense for a foster child."
"I want Luke to be our son," Manfred said. "I don't care what it costs. I want him to have the best education possible. If, God forbid, we have to give him up, it's still worth it. He is a very intelligent boy and is thriving in his new school."
"From my brief conversation with him earlier, he thinks of you as his father already. He also likes being around the other boys - and the dogs," Mel said with a grin.
"May I ask a personal question?" Mel asked.
"Sure," Manfred said. "I can always refuse to answer it if I think it's too personal."
"Can you afford the expenses of assuming the responsibility for Luke long term? I don't know what your financial situation is and I want to know if Luke will be taken care of."
"Hildy and I are far from being rich, at least in comparison to Crane and Donald, but we do have resources that are able to give our girls and Luke a good life. My Air Force pension, rentals from my properties, my investments, and the proceeds from the sale of my business are more than enough for us to live quite comfortably. Adding Luke to our family will not have a significant impact on our lifestyle."
The adults had migrated to the living room while the kids ate the cake. Soon as they had taken all the dishes to the kitchen and loaded the dishwasher, they wandered into where we were.
"Do you guys have any homework?" I asked.
"Yeah," came the response.
I pointed toward the upstairs and our six headed for their bedrooms to begin the dreaded homework assignments.
"I have homework, too," Luke said. "Where can I do mine?"
"Let's go into Mr. Crane's office and I'll check it when you're done," Mel said. "How does that sound?"
"Great," Luke said. He picked up his backpack, grabbed Mel's hand and pulled him toward the office.
After they had gone, I glanced at Manfred and noticed a frown on his face. "Something wrong?" I asked him.
"Not really," he said. "It's just that I'm usually the one to check Luke's homework. I guess I'm a little jealous."
"Understandable," Donald said. "Mel is only going to be here for a short while and then you'll have Luke back to yourself."
"I know. I know," he sighed.
"We can't let anything keep us from adopting Luke," Hildy stated. "I think the girls love him as much as Manny and I do. They think having a brother would be great."
Soon the boys started coming down the stairs to have their homework checked. It was rare when I found that they had done something wrong and I always congratulated them and gave them a hug after I finished checking each set of their homework. Donald had done the same for William and Lenore. Lenore was always proud when her father told her how good she had drawn her letters and numbers. She would always give him a kiss on the cheek and then run to Gilda to show her what she had done. Hildy had gone to check Jeannie's and Ginny's homework and pronounced that they had done a marvelous job.
"This kid is smart," Mel declared, as he led Luke back into the living room. Luke, of course, was grinning from ear to ear. "I don't think we were learning half this stuff for a couple more grade levels when I was in school."
"We need to be heading home," Manfred said. "It's going to be time to get ready for bed soon."
"Can I drive?" Luke asked.
"Only if you don't drive too fast and stay on the path," Manfred said.
"You mean you let Luke drive your car?" Mel asked, shaking his head at what he had just heard.
"No, not a car," Manfred laughed. "We have a golf cart that we take between here and our house and the path is an asphalt surfaced path."
"I've got to see this," Mel said. "Mind if I tag along?"
"It might be a little crowded in the cart, but I think we can squeeze you in. One of the girls can sit on my lap in the front and the other can sit on Hildy's lap in the back with you. I'm afraid you'll have to walk back. We need the cart to bring Luke and the girls back here in the morning so they can catch their ride to school."
"I believe I can handle the walk back," Mel said. "After all that supper, I need a chance to walk it off."
I handed Mel a flashlight as he walked out the back door with the Strasser clan. The sun was down and it was very dark since the clouds blocked the moon and stars.
"If I get lost, send out a search party," Mel said, as he accepted the flashlight.
"Don't get lost or you'll miss out on the wine," Donald told him.
"Now, that is an incentive. I may run all the way back."
"I like him," Gilda said, as I handed her a glass of Shiraz. She had just returned from supervising Lenore's bath. "I wonder what the problem was between him and his sister."
"I wonder that as well," I said, "but it's really none of our business. If he wants us to know, he'll tell us."
Shortly, we heard the back door opening. Donald got up and went to the bar. When Mel entered, Donald asked him, "Red or White?"
"Whatever you're having," he replied.
"Shiraz it is," Donald said, pouring a glass and handing it to him.
"This is good," Mel said. "What vineyard?"
Donald held up the bottle for Mel to inspect. "It's an Australian wine that we like. Crane and I are partial to reds and this is a good one."
"Craiglee," Mel read the label. "I've never heard of that one."
"It's scored a 95 by Decanter Magazine," Donald said.
"I'm not a wine connoisseur, but I assume that is a good thing," Mel said, as he sat down.
"I assume that Luke didn't crash the golf cart," I said.
"No, but it was an interesting ride," Mel answered. "I can see, now, that when he reaches sixteen, he will want his driver's license and a car. I don't envy Manfred when that time comes."
"Well, what is your impression of the Strasser family?" I asked.
"I like them," he said. "Luke is clearly happy and that is the most important thing to me. Their house is more modest than this one is, but Manfred said they were planning to add another two bedrooms to it. He said the contractor was supposed to come tomorrow to start the planning process."
"I'm paying for that," Gilda spoke up.
"When all my kids have left home, I'll probably go to live with my sister and I want a place to call my own," she said. "Besides, I will be an old lady by that time." The latter was said with a huge grin. We all chuckled at that.
"What are we gonna have for snacks?" TJ asked, as he sidled up to me.
"There are grapes in the refrigerator and bananas on the counter," Gilda offered. "After Hildy's chocolate cake, you don't need any more sweets."
"Tell your brothers and then when you're finished, make sure you brush your teeth. We'll be up to tuck you in a little later," I said.
"Okay," he said, and ran off to tell the others.
When we returned from tucking everybody in bed, Mel said, "With all the bedrooms that you have in this house, I would have thought that the boys would each have their own bedroom."
"If we tried to split up the twins and Chris into separate bedrooms, we would have open rebellion," I said. "I call them the three musketeers, because they are constantly together. They play tennis together. They swim together. They ride horses together. This year they are running cross country together. The same applies for TJ, Peter and William. What one of them does, they all do."
"You have horses? I didn't see any out buildings when I drove in," Mel said.
"We keep them on a couple of the farms," I said.
"If you stick around through Sunday, you can go riding with us, weather permitting," Donald added. "The kids love to ride and they are pretty good at it."
"You said a couple of the farms. How many farms and horses do you have?" Mel asked.
"We have five farms," I answered. "They're all in a cluster. There're two on one side of the road and three on the opposite side. As far as the number of horses there are, I think the latest count is fourteen."
"Wow," Mel said. "Who takes care of them? I'm sure you don't go out there every day to feed and exercise them."
"No, Rosie and her brother Bert take care of the ones on the original farm, while Charlie and his brother take care of the quarter horses on the adjacent farm," I said.
"You have an interesting family," Mel said. "You said on the phone that your five adopted sons wanted to keep Luke, but there are six boys here."
"I actually adopted six boys. My oldest, Joel, is now attending Rice University. Chris, Lenny, Larry, TJ and Peter are my sons."
"William and Lenore are my kids," Donald explained. "I adopted my sister's children after she died."
"So, except for Luke, all of the kids here tonight have been adopted. Amazing," Mel said.
"I don't know what's on your schedule for tomorrow," I said to Mel. "I left a message for Antonio Recci, that's Luke's attorney, asking if he could meet with you tomorrow. I haven't heard back as yet, but I should by the time I get back from delivering the kids to school."
"That reminds me," Mel said. "On the phone, I asked who was paying for this private attorney and you said something to the effect to wait until I got here."
"I contacted the firm of Benjamin Cross and he assigned Antonio to Luke's case," I said. "I have guaranteed the fees for Luke's representation. I've also asked Antonio to represent Luke's sister, Penelope Lorraine."
"Why would you do that?" Mel asked.
"Because I can afford it and my sons would never let me hear the end of it if Luke didn't get to live next door and were placed back into that foster home," I answered. "Just so you know, if Hildy and Manfred did not have the financial wherewithal to adopt Luke, the charity that I set up a few years ago would have made it possible with monthly payments that would make them eligible. The charity does everything it can to get kids out of the foster care system and into adoptive homes."
"That charity must have a lot of resources," Mel said.
"Thanks to an extremely generous trust fund that Donald set up, the charity has an embarrassment of funds to carry out their mission."
"How many children have been placed with the help of the charity?" Mel asked.
"I don't have the exact figure," I said. "I'm not involved in the day-to-day operations, but on average, it has helped around 35 families a year. That may not seem like a lot, but when you consider that each of those 35 families receive monthly payments until the child is 18, it all begins to add up. Each of the families is audited yearly to make sure that the payments are still applicable and also to check on the welfare of the adopted child. Although we investigate the fitness of the family before we offer any assistance, we feel we have a responsibility to the child to see that nothing has changed."
"Commendable," Mel said. "Well, it's been a long day and I'm still on East Coast time. I think I shall say goodnight."
"If you need anything, just let us know," I said.
"What time do you take the kids to school?" Mel asked.
"We leave here at 7:30," I said.
"If there is room in the van and you don't mind, I would like to tag along. I'd like to see Luke's school."
"You're more than welcome," I said. "Goodnight."
I was pouring myself a cup of coffee when Mel came out of his bedroom the next morning. "Did you sleep well?" I asked.
"Like a log," he said. "I don't think my head even hit the pillow before I was asleep. Would you pour me one of those, please?"
"What would you like for breakfast?" Gilda asked. "The children usually have cereal, fruit and juice, but I can fix you most anything you want."
"A couple slices of toast and juice, if it's not too much trouble," Mel said.
"Have a seat at the table," I said. "I need to go roust the boys."
"I'll go wake Lenore," Donald said, coming out of the bedroom. "Good morning, Mel."
When I returned, I picked up my coffee and sat down at the table with Mel. As I did, the boys started stomping down the stairs. Before long they were eating their breakfasts without even saying a word to our guest. Food was the only thing on their minds. As they finished, they took their dishes to the kitchen and loaded them into the dishwasher.
"Make sure you brush your teeth," I told them as they hurried up the stairs.
"Sure, dad," was the reply from them.
Ten minutes later they were back downstairs waiting for Manfred to bring Luke and the girls. We didn't have to wait long before they came in the back door. "Everybody got everything?" Getting affirmative answers from them, we headed for the van. Mel followed behind me.
"Are they always this excited to get to school?" Mel asked, as we arrived at the school and the kids piled out.
"Usually," I said. "It does get a bit noisy."
"Bye, Uncle Mel," Luke said, waving and taking off to be with some of his new friends.
"Would you like to go in the school and look around?" I asked. "I'll introduce you to the Headmaster."
"I would like to take a look around," Mel said.
Headmaster Pierce was tied up in a meeting and I wasn't able to introduce Mel. I told his secretary that I was going to take a guest on a tour of the facilities.
"They just let parents wander around the school unescorted?"
"Not normally, but since I'm a school board member, I can."
"What do you think?" I asked.
"I think Luke is a very lucky boy."
When we returned to the house, Gilda told us that Antonio had called and said he could be here around 9:30 to meet with us.
"Grab a cup of coffee, if you like," I said. "We always seem to have a fresh pot going all day long. We shouldn't have to wait too long for Antonio to show up." We didn't. We had barely settled down to enjoy our coffee, when the buzzer announced someone was at the gate. I went to check the gate camera and confirmed it was Antonio.
Mel and I went to wait for him on the front step. He drove up and got out of the car and approached us. I made the introductions and we went back into the house.
After some small talk and settling down in the living room with fresh cups of coffee, Antonio said, "I have convinced the judge to hold a special hearing tomorrow at 10:00AM to review information that has been developed concerning CPS's failure to comply with his order and to determine if you are, in fact, Luke's only living relative. Do you, by chance, have proof that you are the brother of Karen Fredrick, Luke's mother?"
"I have a copy of my birth certificate, if that will help," Mel said.
"What about Karen's birth certificate?" Antonio asked.
"Sorry, I don't have that," Mel said. "What I do have is a family tree that I have been working on for the past couple of years. I have traced the family back for a little over 200 years when our ancestors first emigrated from England. The name Wilson goes back as far as 1324, but I haven't filled in the gap back from 1786 to then."
"That may help," Antonio said. "Do you have a copy of the information with you?"
"No, but I can have my Company Clerk either fax or email it to me," Mel said. "It's on my personal computer in my quarters. I can give him a call and tell him how to retrieve it."
"I hope you don't have anything personal on it besides the family tree," I said.
"No, I do everything of a personal nature on an external hard drive which I keep locked up in my gun safe," Mel said, looking at his watch. "If I call right now, I should catch Corporal Linz before he goes to lunch."
"Use my phone in the office," I offered.
After Mel had gone to make his phone call, I asked, "What have you found out about Luke's sister?"
"Not much," he said, "but there is something strange going on there that I can't quite put my finger on. It just doesn't smell right."
"Perhaps John Levy can help you out there," I said. "I haven't heard from him in a few days, maybe it's time to make contact with him to see if he has learned anything."
"I told my Corporal to email the information to that email account where you sent me the map," Mel said. "I hope that's all right."
"Of course," I said. "I'm going to call John Levy and get an update. I'll have him sniff around the circumstances surrounding Penelope's pending adoption. See if he can come up with anything."
"May I speak with John Levy?" I asked the receptionist when my call was answered.
"Just a moment, he just walked into the office," I was informed.
"John Levy here," he answered.
"Crane Johnson," I said. "I wanted to get an update from you. Have you learned anything new since our last contact?"
"I'm glad you called. I've learned a few things," he said. "The information I've uncovered concerning Hugh and Janice Cole is disturbing. I talked to some of their neighbors. One lady in particular had a lot of quote 'information' unquote. The other neighbors that I spoke with said she was the biggest gossip in the neighborhood. I love people like her. Anyway, she said that she has heard that Janice had told one of the other neighbors that they were having to pay a lot of money to adopt Penelope. I was able to confirm from the neighbor in question that Janice had said it was costing them money. I know that CPS does not charge people money to have a child adopted. Private adoption agencies do charge a lot of money. I wasn't able to find out who was on the receiving end of the money, but I have my suspicions."
"I wouldn't have expected that. When I drove by the Cole's house, they didn't appear to be flush with cash," I said. "Have you asked your girlfriend if she knew anything about any cash payments for adoption?"
"All Julie could tell me was that there are rumors, but no one seems to have anything concrete."
"Thanks, John," I said. "Keep digging and let me know if anything turns up."
I returned to where Antonio and Mel were talking and told them the substance of what John Levy had relayed to me. I could see a smile on Antonio's face as I spoke. "What is it?" I asked him.
"That may be what's been bothering me about what's going on in that CPS office," he said. "The stink is getting stronger. I need to do some work before the hearing tomorrow. I would like to meet with you both for a few minutes before the ten o'clock hearing."
"Where's the hearing being held?" I asked.
"Yeah, I guess that is important," Antonio said, shaking his head. "In the courthouse annex. Take the elevator to the second floor and turn left. It's the courtroom straight ahead. I'll meet you on one of the benches in the hallway to the left of the courtroom door."
"I know that courtroom," I said. "We'll meet you there."