It was about thirty minutes before Jack showed up.
"Sorry I'm late. I got delayed by an accident on the Loop," Jack said as he sat down in my office.
"No problem," I said getting up to get us a cup of coffee. I knew Jack would have one so I didn't ask him. When I came back with the coffee, I asked Jack to tell us what he had found out.
"Well, you know that when we did the initial on Bruce everything came back clear. He had no criminal record or anything in his official record to indicate that he was anything but a stand up guy," Jack said taking a sip of his coffee. "The other day, one of our investigators was working on another case and was visiting Bruce's hometown. He was interviewing one of the locals when the guy asked him if our investigator was following up on Bruce. When he said he wasn't, the guy asked if Bruce had been allowed to foster the boy. Since Scott had been the operative on that investigation, he replied that Bruce had. He noticed that the man frowned when he said that. Being the trained investigator that he is, he began following up with the man.
"Well, it seems that he had lived next door and gone through school with Bruce and knew him very well. He related some stories of how Bruce used to bully the younger kids in the neighborhood and beat up on his own younger brother. He said that he thought Bruce took pleasure from beating up on kids. This was only one man's opinion but I thought you might want to follow up to make sure that his foster son is not being abused."
Darcie and I sat there stunned. We both had interviewed Bruce and neither of us had detected any sign of the behavior that had been described to us.
"Jack, I don't know what to say except thanks for the heads up," I said. "Darcie, I think it's time to invite Bruce to the house for a visit. Saturday's out because of Hildy's wedding. How about Sunday? What are you and Mel doing?"
"We're free after church," she said. I'll call Bruce, tell him this is a follow up for the foundation and see if he can be there Sunday. I'll leave a message for him at his house to call us tomorrow and confirm."
"Tell him if the weather is nice we'll have a swim party and to bring their suits," I said. "This is an ideal place to get Joel and the boys involved in talking to the boy. By the way, what's the boy's name? I can't remember it."
Darcie looked at the file and said, "Alan Court."
"That's right, I remember now," I said. "I guess I've been looking at too many files. What about the other case that we handled at the same time as Bruce's? Tamika Farrell, wasn't that her name? Have we heard any thing about her and how she's doing?"
"Yes," Darcie said. "I heard from Shelia Smith, her caseworker, last week. Tamika is attending night school twice a week studying to get her GED. Her mother looks after Kara, her foster child, on the nights that she's going to school. I think this is going to be a real success story for the foundation."
"What's the status of the adoption?" I asked.
"I think Shelia said that it comes up sometime around Thanksgiving. There's no firm date yet. One of us will have to appear and provide assurances to the court that the financial support that the foundation is providing isn't going to stop once the adoption takes place," Darcie said.
"Okay," I said. "Have you reviewed any of the files that we've received recently?"
"Yes," she said laughing. "We've received twenty-three files in the last two weeks. I think I've narrowed them down to four that you might want to look at. The other nineteen, I think, can be handled by the system. No real pressing need for us to be involved in those. I'll put all of them on your desk with the four flagged. After you've had a chance to look at them, we can discuss what we can do for them."
"Great," I said. "I trust your judgment."
After Jack left, I sat down at my desk and started reading the files that Darcie had given me. The four that she had flagged were indeed, from the information in the files, deserving of our help. Just to be sure, I also skimmed the other nineteen files. My faith in Darcie's judgment was confirmed. There was only one of the other 19 files that I wanted to discuss with her.
I left the office in time to meet the boys' school van. It was becoming a habit for all five dogs to wait with me for the van to arrive. They could hear the van before it came into view and would start barking and trying to get through the fence. When the van did arrive, they went wild. I wouldn't open the gate until the van had stopped and the doors opened. The moment I did, they all squeezed through it even before it was fully open. As the boys stepped off the van, they had their arms full of dog. The bus driver would just smile and wait until the boys were safely away from the van before he would close the door and drive off.
After the dogs got their hugs, I got mine before they all ran up the drive to the house. I'm sure it was the thought of one of Hildy's snacks that hurried them along. They didn't realize that Hildy was on vacation preparing for her wedding.
"Where's Hildy?" TJ asked looking around the kitchen.
I was about to answer his question when Mrs. Fuentes entered the kitchen from the laundry room.
"Hi, Mrs. Fuentes," Joel said. "We forgot you were gonna be here."
"Did you fix us a snack?" TJ asked her.
"Of course I did. Hildy said that she always had something for you when you got home from school," Mrs. Fuentes said patting TJ on the head. "I hope that you like apple crisp."
"I do," Chris answered.
"Me too," the twins answered in unison.
The boys ran to their rooms to change and wash up before they sat down at the table. Mrs. Fuentes dished up the apple crisp and added a dollop of whipped cream to the top of each bowl. They seemed to enjoy the treat just as much as if Hildy had fixed it for them.
Joel came to me after he had finished his snack, "Dad, I have a test in my computer class tomorrow. Can you help me study for it?"
"Sure, son," I answered. "What's the test over?"
"It's a hardware test. We have to identify the parts of a PC."
"What kind of a PC are you studying? IBM or Apple?"
"IBM, like the ones we have."
"No problem then," I said. "Do you want to do it now or wait until after supper?"
"Uh... I think I'll wait until after supper. Samson wants to play now," he said taking off for the patio door.
Cora Fuentes' supper was excellent. She had fixed a fantastic Mexican meal. The refried beans were absolutely the best I had ever eaten. She told me later that the secret to them was lard. The boys seemed to like the meal as well. I don't think they knew everything they were eating but that didn't stop them from cleaning up their plates.
Cora went home after the very few leftovers were put away and the dishes loaded into the dishwasher but not before she insisted that the boys call her Cora. She got hugs from all of them before she left.
Homework was next on the agenda. Joel went to get his study aid so that I could help him study for his computer test tomorrow. After looking at it, I decided the best way to study for his test was to remove the cover from one of our computers and have him identify the components. The computers that I had purchased were equipped with the i486DX4 100 MHz processors the latest and most powerful readily available. Eric had set up our network so that every one of the computers had access to the internet via a shared line through a server.
I removed the case and started quizzing Joel on the various cards and chips that were on his study aid. The one card that we were missing on the computer was the modem card. Instead, we had a network interface card. I explained to Joel that it served the same purpose as a modem card in our network.
He did very well both ways I quizzed him. I first pointed to the object in question and had him identify it and then I asked him to show me when I gave him the name of the part.
When we were done, he asked me, "Dad, do you know how to program in BASIC?"
"Yes, son," I said. "I learned to program in several languages while I was in college."
"Yeah, which ones?" he asked.
"Well let's see. There was FORTRAN, COBOL, PL/I, Pascal, BASIC, C, LISP, Perl and assembly language for IBM mainframes and for DEC. I think that's all."
"Wow, that's a lot. I never heard of a lot of them. We're gonna learn BASIC next. Do we have BASIC on our computers?" Joel asked.
"Yes, there's a version of BASIC on all of the computers. It's not very easy to use, though. I'll get a better version that's easier to use. One that you can compile the code instead of having it interpreted. I always thought programming in BASIC was a lot of fun," I told him as I was putting the case back on the computer.
"What's interpreted mean?" he asked.
"Hmm, that's a little difficult to explain until you learn more about programming. For now, let's just say that a compiled program runs faster than an interpreted one. Ask me that again after you've written your first BASIC program and I'll try to explain it then," I said.
"Thanks, dad," he said giving me a hug before running off to do the rest of his homework.
One by one, the boys came to me so that I could check their homework assignments. Chris was the last to have his checked. Since his homework was the same as the twins it didn't take me long to check his.
"How come JR doesn't come home with us anymore?" Chris asked.
"He has to go home and take care of his dog, Charlie, just like you do. Mrs. Carson is there to take care of him and Bran. Besides, Brian is going to spend the night with them tomorrow while Roger and his mother are in Houston," I told him.
"Oh, I forgot about that. Thanks, Dad," Chris said jumping off my lap to join his brothers.
I was wondering how Helen and Roger were going to do in Houston. I knew that we wouldn't know anything until after they got back. I just hoped that Dr. Yankowitz would be able to do something for Roger. I was about ready to fix the boys' snack when Hildy came in.
"I wish that Manny and I had eloped," she said with a sigh sitting down at the kitchen table. "Emilio and I got married before the Justice of the Peace just before he went off overseas. I never had to go through all this preparation before. Manny and I met all morning with the caterers and then the lady who is going to make the wedding cake this afternoon as well as the reception hall manager. Tomorrow we have to make the final selection of the band and then have my final fitting for my wedding outfit. Wednesday it's the final meeting with the florist. Maybe Thursday or Friday will be reasonably sane, but I doubt it."
"I'm sure that it's all going to be worth it once it's over. How about a cup of coffee? I was just about to make a pot of decaf. The boys will be ready for their snack any time now," I said with a chuckle.
"Thanks, you fix the coffee and I'll fix the boys' snack. Did Cora leave anything?" she asked.
"There was some apple crisp, but I think it's all gone. It'll probably have to be ice cream and cookies," I said. "I don't think the boys will mind."
They didn't. They were too glad to see Hildy.
Hildy and I were enjoying our cup of coffee when the phone rang. I smiled after I answered it.
"Joel, it's for you," I said holding out the receiver for him.
"Yes, it's for you."
"Hello," Joel said tentatively into the phone after he took it from me. "Tony! Hey, it's good to talk to you."
As the other boys finished their snack, I ushered them into the family room so that Joel could talk in private to Tony. About 15 minutes later Joel joined us.
"How's Tony?" I asked.
"He's doing great. He said he has enough hair to comb now," Joel laughed. "He and Benny are having so much fun together and he loves his new mom and dad."
"That's great. Now, I think it's time for everyone to get their showers taken and get ready for bed," I said. "Off you go."
Joel trailed behind the other boys as they went off to take their showers. "Thanks, dad," he said reaching up to give me a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
"You're welcome, son, but what did I do to deserve that?"
"For helping Tony get better," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"I know you're paying Tony's doctor bills," he said. "Are you really that rich, dad?"
"Joel, compared to a lot of people we're rich. But the real reason I'm rich is that I have you and your brothers as my sons. You guys are worth more to me than all the money that I have," I said giving him a kiss on the forehead and ruffled the sparse hair on his head. "Now, go take your shower. TJ will be wondering what's happened to you."
The next couple of days were a blur. Darcie and I interview the individuals that we decided from the four files that needed our help. That meant visiting each one of the homes to inspect the conditions. We made one visit in the morning and one in the afternoon. As we expected, the living conditions were modest but all were clean and livable. After we had completed our inspections and interviews, we contacted Jack to have him start a background check on the families. Jack informed us he could probably have the checks completed by the end of the following week.
We heard from Bruce Collingsworthy that he and his foster son could come to the house on Sunday.
By the time I got home Wednesday evening, I was bushed. I was also curious about what Mrs. Davis found out from Dr. Yankowitz about Roger. The boys didn't know anything. None of them had talked to Brian and he probably didn't know anything yet. I wanted to call Helen but thought it best to wait until later in the evening.
After I had checked the boys' homework, I decided to call and find out about Roger while the boys had their evening snack.
"Mrs. Davis, this is Crane Johnson," I said when she answered the phone. "I called to find out if Dr. Yankowitz thought he could help Roger."
"Oh, sorry, I should have called you earlier," she said. "We got back from Houston shortly after Brian got home from school. Dr. Yankowitz was very thorough to say the least. I'm glad that he was. He thinks there is a reasonable chance of helping Roger. The new MRI that he used showed two places where the nerves in the spine are being pinched. He doesn't think that the nerves are severed."
"That's great news. When's he going to operate?" I asked.
"There's a problem. He charges $15,000 for the operation. With the operating room charges plus all the other doctors' fees and the hospital charges, it's going to run at least $40,000. We don't have that kind of money," she said with a noticeable choke in her voice.
"Helen, I told you that I knew of a foundation that might be able to help with the expenses," I said. "I want you to call Darcie Glenn at the foundation and talk to her. I'm sure that she can help you out."
"Do you really think so? That would be great," she said and I could hear the tears in her voice.
I gave her Darcie's phone number at the foundation and told her to call first thing in the morning. As soon as I hung the phone up, I called Darcie to tell her to expect the call. I told her not to mention that I was part of the foundation. Darcie thought it was strange but I said I would explain when I got to the office tomorrow.
I arrived at the office a little before nine the next morning. Darcie was at her desk going over some new files that we had received in the past couple of days that neither of us had a chance to go over since we had been tied up interviewing the four candidate families. Over a cup of coffee, I explained to her Roger's situation and that I thought the foundation should help. The board would have to approve the expenditure but I felt certain that it would.
Darcie's phone rang as we were talking. It was from Helen Davis. "Mrs. Davis, good morning. Mr. Johnson called me last night and said that you would be calling. He explained to me briefly what the situation is and that he thought the foundation could help. Let me tell you what we will need to further consider providing assistance. We will need you to authorize the physician to release your son's medical records to us in order for us to make a decision. We also need a statement from the doctor specifying the treatment that he recommends. That would include not only the operation but any follow up therapy that he would recommend. The sooner we get the information the sooner we can get the foundation's decision to you. It should only take a couple of days after we receive the information before the board will decide."
The conversation continued for a few more minutes with Darcie giving Helen the fax number to use for Dr. Yankowitz to send us the information.
I was a bit surprised after lunch when we received a phone call from Dr. Yankowitz's office nurse confirming the fax number to send the requested information. I had met her when I did consulting for the medical practice. She was one of the most no-nonsense nurses that I had ever met.
"This is Gracie Gibbons from Dr. Yankowitz's office," she said when I answered the phone.
"Nurse Gibbons, this is Crane Johnson. How are you? It's been a long time," I said.
"Are you that same wet behind the ears programmer that did some work for us a few years ago?" she asked in that gruff voice of hers.
"The very same."
"What happened? Did that consulting firm fire you?"
"Gracie, that's why I always loved you. Never afraid to ask embarrassing questions. The answer is no. I bought the firm and just recently sold it. And speaking of firing, you mean Dr. Yankowitz hasn't gotten wise to you yet?"
"Nah, you know he couldn't run this place without me," she laughed.
"You're right about that," I said. "Do you have the information about Roger Davis for us?"
"Yes, I just needed to verify the fax number before I sent it. I didn't want it to go to the wrong person. The doctor is excited about the prospects for young Roger. He has developed a new procedure that is tailor-made for his case. Although he told Mrs. Davis that the chances of success are about fifty percent, he really believes with the new procedure they are about eighty percent," she said.
"That's fantastic! Look, Gracie, I would appreciate it if you didn't mention my name in association with any of this. Even though I set up this foundation, I would like to stay in the background," I told her. "And tell that skinflint boss of yours to give us a break on the costs."
"What do you think we're running here, Wal-Mart? If he did that he wouldn't be able to pay my enormous salary," she cackled in that distinctive laugh.
"In that case, tell him to give you a big bonus."
"Now, that, I will tell him. Got to go, he actually expects me to do some work around here," she said. "Crane, take care of yourself and come see us if you're ever in Houston."
"I'll certainly try," I said before hanging up.
"That was an interesting conversation," Darcie said. "I overheard your part. You must have known her."
"Yes, Gracie sort of adopted me when I was doing a project for them not long after I started working for Alamo Consulting Consortium. She runs that office with an iron fist, but she has a heart of pure gold," I said. "She's going to fax everything we requested. See if we can't get the board together for a meeting to approve the assistance for some time tomorrow. If that doesn't work, try for Monday."
In the afternoon, I had to go pick up Hildy and Manfred's wedding present. Several weeks ago, I had asked Manfred where he was going to take Hildy on their honeymoon. He said that he thought that they would go to South Padre Island and spend the week. When I asked him if he had a passport, he said he did. I knew Hildy had one. I told him I would give them a week cruise in the Caribbean as a wedding present if he would allow me. He consented and I booked their flight to Miami Saturday evening. They would stay at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables Saturday and Sunday before their cruise would begin on Monday. When they returned from the cruise on Saturday, they would again spend the night at the Biltmore and fly home on Sunday. Everything was included, even meals. The only thing they would have to pay were the tips aboard the ship or shore excursions they opted to take.
When Manfred said this was all too much, I reminded him just how important Hildy was to the boys and me. She had been like a mother to me for the last seven years and like a grandmother to the boys for the past year. Besides, I told him, what good is money if you can't use it to make someone you love happy.
The travel agent had everything prepared for me to pick up when I got there. In fact, she had a foot long model of the cruise ship to go along with the tickets. She said that the cruise line gives one away to everyone who books one of their suites. I checked to make sure that everything was as I had specified before I left for home.
I barely made it home in time to greet the boys when they got off the school van. After they had their after school treat, I informed them that we were going to have supper with Hildy and Manfred and give them their wedding present. I showed them the model ship, which TJ immediately wanted.
"No, son, this is for Hildy and Manfred. Besides, I don't think it would float. It would probably sink to the bottom of the pool. It's a keepsake to remind them of their cruise."
"What's a keep whatever you said?" TJ asked.
"Well, it's something that you keep to help you remember something pleasant. Your little bear that you got at Chuck E Cheese is a keepsake. It reminds you of the first time you ever went there and the fun you had. That's why you sleep with it every night," I said.
Cora had fixed our supper but had to leave to go to her church meeting. She left everything warming in the oven ready for it to be served. The boys had set the dining room table using the best china and were waiting impatiently for our guests to arrive.
Manfred and Hildy arrived with Horst just after 6:30 to the delight of the boys. They received hugs all around before going to wash up for supper. I started putting the food on the table. Hildy entered the kitchen and immediately started helping.
"You're supposed to be a guest tonight," I said frowning at her.
"Fiddlesticks," she said as she took the pork roast out of the oven and placed it on a platter.
Conversation at the table centered on the preparations for the wedding and the rehearsal dinner tomorrow evening. Even Horst seemed more upbeat.
"Daddy, are we going to the 'hersal dinner?" TJ asked.
"No, TJ," I said. "That's for people who are in the wedding party. You get to go to the reception after the wedding."
"Okay," he said apparently satisfied.
After everyone finished their dessert and the table was cleared, we adjourned to the family room. When we were settled, I whispered in TJ's ear and he took off for my office. He came back smiling from ear to ear carrying the ship model.
"Hildy," I started, "I know that Manfred has been keeping from you exactly where you were going on your honeymoon. You can blame me for that. I asked him if he would allow us to give you the honeymoon as our wedding present to you.
"TJ, please give the ship to Hildy.
"Hildy, if you will tilt the smokestack back you will find our present inside the ship."
She looked a little puzzled as she took the ship from TJ and did as I asked. She withdrew the envelope containing the travel arrangements. Her eyes widened as she saw what was inside the envelope.
"Oh my, this is... is wonderful," she stammered. "I always wanted to go on a cruise."
That was all she was able to say. The tears started flowing down her cheeks. Manfred put his arms around her and held her until she recovered.
"Thank you. Thank you so much. I can't believe this," she said standing up from the loveseat. Each of the boys got a big hug and a kiss from her. "Crane, you don't know how much this family means to me. I feel that I'm blessed just to be a part of it."
"You're a very important part of it," I said as she gave me my hug. "A very important part."