Darcie was even more striking as she exited her car. I thought that she was an attractive woman when I met with her in her office but now she was something else. At the office she had her hair pulled back making her look like she was in her 30's. Now her hair fell in soft curls down around her shoulders. She looked more like someone in their mid twenties. She was dressed rather informally in slacks and a blouse that showed her figure off nicely.
Thankfully she had to walk about twenty feet from her car to where I was standing on the front steps, giving me just enough time to recover and to be able to speak coherently.
"Welcome Ms. Levin, I hope you didn't have any trouble finding the place," I said as I shook her outstretched hand.
"No, the directions that you gave me were excellent. Darcie, please. My, this is a beautiful place. I live over on the east side of San Antonio and I certainly don't have a view like this," she said.
"That's why I was unwilling to sell this place after my parents died. Let's go in and meet everyone," I said as I ushered her in the front door.
The boys were playing on the patio and Hildy was in the kitchen. "Hildy this is Darcie Levin, Darcie this is Hildy Ramirez. Hildy takes care of us and keeps us in line," I told her.
They exchanged greetings before I steered Darcie to the patio to meet the boys. The boys saw us as we came out onto the patio and they all rushed up to us interrupting whatever game they were playing. As they lined up I introduced them to Darcie, first Joel, then the twins then TJ.
"And this young man hiding behind the twins is Chris Martin," I said grabbing his hand and gently pulling him around in front of the twins.
"Hi, Chris," she said. "It is a pleasure to meet you. How do you like being here with Mr. Johnson and his boys?"
"It's neat!" he said still holding my hand. "We have lots of fun. I got to swim and play video games and chase deer and Hildy cooks real good and everthing."
"That's great!" Darcie responded. "Chris, I need to talk to you for a few minutes. Crane, could we use your study for a bit?"
"Of course, don't be too long. I think Hildy will have supper ready in about 20 minutes and the boys will need to wash up before they eat," I said.
"We won't be long. I just need some basic information from him. Come along Chris, let's do this quickly. I know you don't want to miss any of Hildy's cooking," she said taking his hand and leading him back inside.
I sent the other boys to get cleaned up and told them to see if Hildy needed any help setting the table. We had to move to the dining room because there was not enough room to seat all of us at the breakfast table.
TJ beamed as he helped. Hildy had assigned him to place the napkins beside all of the plates. You would have thought he had climbed Mt. Everest when Hildy congratulated him on the fine job that he had done. I gave him a hug and told him how helpful he was. As the other boys finished their table setting tasks I gave them hugs also not wanting them to feel left out.
The boys had just finished when Darcie and Chris came out of the study leading a smiling Chris. He ran to the bathroom at my urging to wash up for supper. I indicated to Darcie where the guest bath was in case she wanted to freshen up.
Darcie sat a one end of the table and I sat at the other. TJ was to my right next to Hildy who was sitting between him and Joel. The twins were across the table with Chris sitting between them. The table fairly groaned with food. There were two large platters piled high with fried chicken, two baskets of steaming hot biscuits, bowls of thick cream gravy and green beans enough to feed an army.
"Joel, would you start the chicken with Ms. Levin? Since she is our guest, please pass her each dish first. Thank you," I told him.
Joel was the consummate gentleman. I was so proud of him it was hard to keep from getting up and giving him a hug. I started passing the duplicate dishes to the twins and Chris. By the time all the dishes had made their way by all of the boys, their plates were heaped with food. I was both surprised and pleased that they waited until everyone had been passed each plate before they looked at me to see if it was alright to begin. I gave them a nod and the feeding frenzy began.
Darcie didn't do too badly in the eating department. Although her plate was not as heaping as the boys' plates, she managed a respectable helping of everything. The boys, as usual were not into conversation while they ate. The three adults did manage to keep conversation alive and avoided any deadly silence.
I was completely taken by Darcie. She was intelligent, articulate, witty and had a smile that could melt Antarctica. All in all it was a very pleasant meal. And although the boys consumed a mountain of food, their manners had never been better. I was so proud of them.
After everyone finished eating the boys helped Hildy clear the table while Darcie and I took our coffee out onto the patio to enjoy the sun setting over the hills. Soon the boys joined us and pleaded to go swimming. When I told them it was too soon after eating to go in the pool they settled for playing video games on their PlayStations.
"I don't want to sound pushy, but what do you think about Chris staying here until his parents return or until you can find him a suitable foster home?" I asked Darcie. "I should add, if his parents want him back and if CPS finds them fit to have him back."
"It looks like Chris is very happy here and has settled in quite quickly. I need to inspect the rest of the house to see if it meets minimum requirements, but I don't believe there should be any problems. One thing that concerns me is that Chris said that he had to sleep with the twins in their bed. Is that correct?" she asked.
"No not quite. We have a spare bedroom with its own bathroom but he wanted to sleep with Larry and Lenny last night. Long term I don't think that should be the norm but for a few days until he feels comfortable and not so abandoned, I believe it is okay," I replied. "He needed to have the comfort of close contact with the only people he knows who love him."
We inspected the rest of the house including the bedrooms. The boys were totally engrossed in the video games. Joel and Chris were racing Indy cars while TJ cheered them on. The twins were equally glued to their game.
Darcie seemed to be pleased with the amount of space that was available for the boys as we finished the tour. "You know, the state of Texas only allows you to have a total of six foster children at any one time. You can only take in one more before you bump up against that limit," she said with an evil glint in her eyes.
"God, no more please! I love these boys dearly, but thank you I think that I have enough," I sputtered.
She laughed at my embarrassment before adding, "I'll have your temporary foster parent license amended to allow you to have five children in your custody. We will have to wait and see what happens with Chris' parents. Their outstanding warrants will probably keep them out of circulation for some time. You will also have to have another hearing to extend your custody of Chris if that is what you decide you want. Before you say anything, the hearing will not be before Judge Frank. I try to get all of my hearings scheduled before Judge Riley. She is a no nonsense lady but is one of the most compassionate judges that you could find."
"Let's just see what happens with Chris' parents. Right now I don't want to make any long term commitments as to keeping him. If you asked the twins what they wanted, I'm sure that he would be here forever," I said.
Darcie said goodbye to the boys giving them a friendly hug and thanked Hildy for the wonderful supper but turned down her offer for apple pie and ice cream before I escorted her to her car. It was a little awkward as we stood at the car. Neither one of us knew exactly what to say.
After several false starts I said, "You are welcome to come back at any time. The boys would enjoy your company and... so would I."
"Thank you, I would like very much to come back sometime... to visit the boys," she hastily added.
"Great! Anytime you want," I said and then screwing up my courage added, "May I call you sometime?"
"Yes, I'd like that," she replied shaking my hand before slipping into her car.
I felt like a schoolboy who had just asked a girl out for his first date. It had been a long time since I had dated anyone. With college and then the job with ACC and then buying into the business, time was not there for a real social life. I stood looking down the lane long after her car had disappeared from view.
Joel was waiting for me as I returned to the house. "She is nice, I like her. You like her too, don't you?" he said with a giggle.
"She is a very nice lady. I invited her to come back sometime. Is that alright with you?" I blushed.
"Yeah, TJ liked her too. Ever'one thought she was neat. Are you gonna ask her out on a date?" he asked hiding a smile behind his hand.
"I'm glad that everyone thought she was neat. I think I have more than I can handle with you guys without getting involved with Darcie or any other woman.
"By the way, I was so proud of you at supper for the way that you and the rest of the gang behaved. You guys were super and I love you for that, too," I said squeezing his shoulder.
It was Joel's turn to blush at the praise I had given him.
"Let's go get the others. I'll bet that Hildy has the apple pie and ice cream ready for your snacks," I said.
That was all he needed. He took off like a shot and raced to the bedrooms to corral the others.
Hildy had just finished putting the last piece of pie on a plate when the boys burst into the kitchen.
"Did you wash your hands?" Hildy asked bringing the stampede to a screeching halt and immediately they reversed course to wash up.
Large scoops of cinnamon ice cream had been added to each piece of pie by the time the herd returned looking as though they hadn't eaten in a week, but freshly scrubbed.
"Come here Chris," I said to him as they finished their snacks and put the dishes in the dishwasher. "Do you want to sleep in the other bedroom tonight?"
"Do I have to?" he asked with a quiver in his voice.
"No you don't have to. I just thought it would be more comfortable if you had your own bed and maybe you would sleep better," I answered.
"Okay," he whispered and turned away.
I could see that his eyes were tearing up as he turned.
"Uncle Crane, please! Can't Chris sleep with us again tonight? Please?" the twins begged in unison.
"I don't care as long as you three go right to sleep and no horsing around. Understand?"
I was bowled over by three hugs and kisses on my cheeks. "Thanks, Uncle Crane," all three said. I guess I'm going to be Uncle Crane to Chris now, too.
After the boys took their baths and I tucked them in bed I turned on the TV to watch the news before going to bed myself. As I was turning through the local channels I happened on an interview one of the reporters was having with a man and woman who appeared to be in their mid to late thirties. This station is known for two things, its self-promotion to the point of nausea and its tabloid like 'news' coverage. The man being interview bore a striking resemblance to Chris. That was what made me pause and watch because I never watched this channel.
The couple was relating how their son had been missing for three days and they were afraid that he had been kidnapped.
"Please, whoever has our boy bring him back. He is our only son," the woman sobbed, crocodile tears running down her cheeks.
The TV at that moment flashed a picture of the missing child on the screen with the name Christopher Martin at the bottom of the picture.
"Oh, my god! What the hell is going on? They are accusing me of kidnapping Chris. I have to get in touch with Jack," I said aloud to myself.
I grabbed the phone and dialed Jack's home number.
"Jack, it's Crane. Something screwy is going on. I just saw an interview with Chris' parent on TV claiming that he hasn't been home for three days and that they believe he has been kidnapped. What do I do now?" I spewed out not even letting Jack say anything but hello. "How can they do this? They should be arrested for their various activities as well as child abandonment. Something is not kosher here."
"Whoa, Crane. I know you didn't kidnap Chris. If you did you sure were dumb the way you went about it. Notifying the police and CPS that you had him was not the smartest thing a kidnapper could do," he joked.
"Thanks, Jack! I don't need any hint of scandal right now with the fate of the other four up in the air. This accusation, although not directed at me by name, could adversely affect my petition to keep them. You have to help me get this cleared up. Is there anything you can do tonight? What about the Martins? Can't they be arrested on their outstanding warrants?" I would have gone on but Jack interrupted.
"Calm down, Crane. I'll call headquarters to see if they have filed a missing persons report with us. I don't know if I can do anything until I find out more information. I'll call you back within the hour to let you know what I have found out. Now go have a drink or a beer or hot chocolate or whatever. I'll call you back, I promise," he said before hanging up.
I waited impatiently for Jack to call. It seemed like hours but in reality it was only about thirty minutes.
"Crane, this is what I found out. The Martins have not filed a missing person report concerning Chris. The strange thing is that a caseworker with CPS has filed one based on her talking to the Martins. What is even stranger is that the caseworker is Joyce Gehrig. How does that grab you? She has to have had access to the information that Darcie entered into the system. I haven't been able to find out how she and the Martins got together but something stinks to high heavens. It looks as though someone is trying to make it appear that you are some kind of pervert before the truth comes out about the whole situation. I think it is pretty apparent who that person is," Jack said.
"Yeah, I guess we do. What can I do? As soon as my name gets associated with this mess, it could ruin me and my chances to get custody of the boys. It won't do my business any good either. Even though it will come out that I am an innocent victim of a smear, the damage will be done. We have to get this cleared up before it goes any further," I snarled. "And you know that the Martins really did abandon Chris. What has changed that they now want him back I wonder? There has to be an explanation besides our CPS friend's vendetta."
"I'm going to make one more phone call before I call it a night. Don't expect any more news tonight. Go to bed. We'll get this all worked out in the morning," Jack advised before he hung up.
I didn't know how I was going to be able to sleep, but I needed to be fresh for the boys. I wasn't going to send them back to school until they started at Corinthian Academy on Monday. Besides, Paul would be here at eight to tutor Joel.
I checked on the boys before retiring. TJ was curled up in a ball against Joel's back. Both were sleeping soundly as I quietly closed their door. The twins and Chris were again in a single mass of arms, legs and heads but they also seemed to be sleeping soundly.
After I completed my bedtime ritual I too climbed into bed knowing that it would probably be a fitful night. To my surprise, I slept rather well. My dreams were of Darcie and not of the other problems that loomed on the horizon.
Thursday morning I woke up surprisingly refreshed. I was sitting at the breakfast table enjoying my first cup of coffee and reading the headlines in the newspaper when the gate alarm went off. I quickly flipped on the gate security cameras to see what was going on. Much to my surprise, the violators were the sheriff's department. There were three cars passing through the now disabled gate. The first two were deputies' cars and the third I recognized as the SUV that belonged to Joyce Gehrig.
This is unreal I thought to myself as I went to the front door to find out what the hell was going on as if I didn't know. I recognized the deputy that stepped out of the first sheriff's car.
"Jesse, what the devil is going on? Why did you have to break my gate? You could have buzzed and I would have let you in, you know that," I questioned the deputy I had given a statement to earlier in the week.
"Crane, it's not my idea but I have my orders. We have a warrant for your arrest on the charge of kidnapping the minor child known as Christopher Martin. Is this person present in the residence?" he asked.
"Of course, he is. I am his foster parent as of yesterday and that bit... woman over there knows very well that is the case. Come on in. Chris is still in bed. They are due to be woken up just about now for breakfast," I said bitterly.
"I'm sorry Crane. I'm only doing my job. I know you wouldn't do anything like this but it's my job to obey the law and the courts," Jesse said.
"If that woman steps into my house I will file charges of trespassing on her. In fact, I think I have enough grounds to file just because she is on my land without my permission. Get her off my land now or I will file on her," I threatened.
Joyce blanched but knew she was here on very tenuous grounds so she got back into her SUV and drove down the lane past my gate.
"Let's go see the boys and maybe we can get this straightened out," I said leading the two deputies into the house.
Going directly to the twins' room I tapped gently on the door before I entered followed closely by Jesse and the other deputy.
"Good morning, guys," I said as I gently shook the tangled mass of bodies. "Time to get up. Hildy is fixing breakfast."
I think the mention of breakfast was what penetrated their sleep.
Lenny stretched and yawned before it soaked into his consciousness that there were extra people in the room beside me. "Who are they?" he asked sleepily.
"They are deputy sheriffs. They think that I kidnapped Chris and am holding him here against his will," I said.
"No Uncle Crane," Chris cried. "You didn't kidnap me. That's dumb."
"Alright, you all go get washed up for breakfast and see what Hildy has prepared for you this morning," I told them.
As they all rushed to the bathroom, I told Jesse that I needed to wake up the other two boys. We went into Joel's room and woke him and TJ up and ready for breakfast.
"This sure doesn't look like your typical kidnapping to me," Jesse said to his partner. "Something's not right here."
"Jesse, do you mind if I look at that warrant for my arrest? I just want to make sure what all is covered by it" I requested.
"Sure, here it is," he said.
"Hmm. It looks like this warrant is only for my arrest. It makes no mention of taking Chris into custody and since Hildy is here to supervise the boys, there is no reason to take him or the other boys for that matter," I said.
"Well, I don't know," Jesse started at which point Hildy entered the family room.
"Jesse, I have known you since you were in diapers. I know all of your family and all of your friends. If you so much as suggest that these boys be taken from this house, I will personally see to it that you are not welcome anyplace in Comal County. And I can do it and you know it!" she emphatically stated. "These boys have been physically, sexually and even verbally abused until they came to live here. This is the first place in their short lives that they feel safe. They love Crane and he loves them. I do too. I don't know what you have to do but those boys are not leaving here."
With that, she turned around and returned to the kitchen and her boys.
"I'm sorry Crane, but I have to take you in. Since the warrant doesn't mention taking anyone else into custody, we'll leave the boys here at least for now," Jesse said.
"Let me tell the boys that I am leaving and then I'll go with you," I said heading for the kitchen.
"Hey, boys, I have to go with Jesse for a while. I should be back before long. Remember Joel, Mr. Coulter will be here at eight to begin your classes. The rest of you can stay home today. In fact you are on vacation until Monday when you start to school as Corinthian Academy" I told them. "Maybe you can get Hildy to read some more of 'Tom Sawyer' to you while I'm gone,"
"Yeah, will you Hildy? Please?" the twins pleaded.
"I think that can be arranged," Hildy said.
I gave each one of the boys a kiss on top of their heads before turning to Hildy.
"If Joyce Gehrig comes on the property without a warrant, call the sheriff. Also, will you call Jack and let him know what is happening and call Darcie. Both of their numbers are in my address book on my desk. Thanks!" I said turning to go with Jesse.
Once outside Jesse said, "I don't like doing this, Crane, but I have to handcuff you and advise you of your rights."