A few days later our legal team had some news for Jake and Anna.
The farm had been fully owned by their father and mother. One of the team had gone out to the property to see what was happening there. The short answer was nothing. It was deserted, with the remains of crime scene tape still in place on the front and back doors of the house. A lone dog was roaming around, apparently waiting for someone to come home. He was bedraggled, but looked like he had been eating enough to get by. Cattle were grazing in one of the paddocks, and there was a tractor and other farm equipment sitting in sheds. A commuter car was parked in the garage. Nothing seemed out of place. It looked like the owners had simply walked out and had not been back—which, in fact, was exactly what had happened.
The lawyer, Ed Markham, called at the farm next door. When he explained that he represented Jake and Anna and was trying to ascertain what had happened to the farm, he was invited in like a long-lost friend. The farmer and his wife, an elderly couple, had been appalled when the kids’ parents were murdered. They were puzzled that there had apparently been no funeral and that the farm seemed to have been abandoned. They had expected someone to administer the property on Jake and Anna’s behalf, and expected the kids to return some day. Instead, as time went by, no one came to even visit the farm, let alone run it, with the result that it looked neglected and was deteriorating. The old couple had watched over the cattle, however, and had ensured that they always had sufficient feed. They had even called in their own vet when necessary. The result was that the kids now owned a herd of beef cattle that had almost doubled in number. “You know,” the old man had said, “that dog won’t leave the place. We tried to get him to come over here so we could look after him, but he just goes right back there and waits. I sure hope those kids can come and get him soon.”
The lawyer thanked the old couple for their help and returned to the city fuming that someone had allowed the siblings’ legal affairs to fall through the cracks.
Because Jake and Anna had no living relatives the welfare authorities should have arranged for a trustee to take over their legal affairs. That had not happened. The parents’ wills had not been read and probate had not been granted. More appalling was that the parents’ bodies were still in storage in the local morgue. As far as the legal system was concerned Jake and Anna’s parents were still alive. Ed wanted to meet with the kids to see if they could remember any information that would help him track down their parents’ wills so he could sort out the legal complexities of the situation. He also wanted to tell them what he had found at the farm.
We met at Breaker One and I introduced Ed to Jake and Anna. “Ed is the lawyer who has been finding out about the farm for you,” I said. “He has some news and some questions for you.”
“Okay,” Jake said, a little nervously.
The first thing Ed told them was that their dog was waiting at the farm. That got a huge grin and a “Yay!” from Anna.
“Oh, gosh,” said Jake. “Has he been there all this time?”
“Yes,” said Ed, “the old couple next door tried to get him to stay with them but he kept going back to your place. They said he showed up a few days after you left.”
“We looked for him,” Anna said, “but we couldn’t find him.”
Then Ed told them how the beef herd was fine and had increased in number, with a little help from the old couple.
“Wow!” Jake said, “We owe them. I always thought the Macalisters were nice people, but…” he shook his head, “to look after the cattle for more than a year, that’s just awesome!” He paused for a moment. “So, everything is just as it was?”
“It seems so,” Ed replied. “Nothing seems to have been touched since you left.”
Jake grinned, his happiness at the unexpected news evident. “Oh, man, I can’t believe it!” He grabbed Anna and hugged her.
“Now, if you feel up to it, I need to ask you guys a few questions,” Ed said.
“Okay,” they replied together.
“Do you know where your parents kept their wills? Or, do you know if they had a lawyer who looked after their legal affairs?”
“Um, I think I heard them mention a lawyer sometimes,” Jake said, “but I can’t remember his name.”
“The safe!” Anna said. “Mum and Dad had a safe in the wall in their bedroom. It was behind a big photo of us.”
“Aha! That’s probably a good place to look,” said Ed, “but do you know the combination?”
“Oh, it was an old one that had a key,” Jake said. “And that was always kept in a drawer in the kitchen.”
“The house is all locked up,” Ed said, “do you have a key?”
“We don’t need one,” said Anna. “Dad had a new lock put in, and it has a combination. It’s my birth date, because the day the guy came to install it was my birthday.”
“I think we need to take a trip to your farm,” I said.
Jake’s face lit up. “Could we? That’d be awesome.”
“We could,” I said, “but we would need to make sure you guys were safe. The IG is still investigating the people who got you into modelling, but I don’t know how far they’ve progressed. We should be fine with my escort for protection, though, and we could fly out there.” I paused to collect my thoughts. “A weekend would suit me best, but how would you feel about that, Ed?”
“I am busy on Saturday. How about we make it Sunday? The sooner the better, because if we can find the wills I can make a start on the legal stuff.”
Ed lived in a block of flats not far from Breaker One. On Sunday afternoon my escort and I collected him and the kids at Breaker.
“Gee, it looks different from the air,” Anna said, as we approached the valley where the farm was located. The pilot landed us at the Macalister farm next door so that we could let them know what we were doing. The old couple came out to greet us and Jake and Anna ran into their arms. After the happy reunion we headed down the road to the kids’ farm. We’d barely landed when a dog appeared around the corner of the house, barking madly.
Anna bolted out of the craft and hugged the animal tightly. He responded by licking her face. I cringed. I like dogs, but not when they invade my space. Anna didn’t seem to mind, though. Eventually she let him go and he jumped up and put his front paws on Jake’s shoulders. “Hey, Jed,” the boy said, patting him. “It’s so good to see you. I can’t believe you’ve waited all this time for us.”
Masoko had accompanied us to support Anna because we thought that visiting the place where she found her parents dead would be likely to upset her. “Are you ready for this, Anna?” Masoko asked, gently.
Anna took a deep breath. “Ready as I’ll ever be.” She keyed in the code and opened the back door. It led into a small entry hall. From there we stepped into the kitchen. It had been cleaned up but the house had a musty smell; I guess that was because it had been closed up for a year or more. I hovered close to Jake in case he needed comforting.
He went over to a drawer and rummaged around looking for something. “Yes!” he said triumphantly, holding up a key.
The two kids took us to their parents’ bedroom and Jake stood in front of a framed photo of him and Anna, taken probably two years earlier. He reached up and took the photo from its hook and set it on a bedside table. He inserted the key and turned it, then turned the handle to open the safe. It was chock full of papers. Some were loose, and others were in envelopes and folders. Jake took everything out and handed the whole lot to Ed, who sat on the bed and began to sort the envelopes into piles according to their return addresses. Most of the folders had handwritten labels such as INSURANCE or VEHICLES AND MACHINERY, so he sorted them accordingly.
Several of the envelopes bore a solicitor’s name, so he began to open those. The third one brought a cry of “Eureka!” It contained wills for Jacob Seidt and Maria Seidt, dated only a few months before they were killed. Both made Jake and Anna their beneficiaries. Ed gave Jake and Anna high-fives. “Thanks, guys,” he said. “This saves a lot of legal mumbo jumbo and I can begin getting things sorted out for you.”
Jake and Anna gave Ed permission to keep all of the documents so that he could go through them later back in his office. The kids collected a few things they wanted to take back with them, and we locked up the safe and the house.
“What should we do about the dog?” Masoko asked me quietly. “I don’t think we should leave him here now that Jake and Anna have been back.”
“Do you think he’d be all right at Breaker One?” I asked.
She smiled. “I think the boys would love him.”
I chuckled. “Well, I’m sure Jake and Anna would like to take him. I’ll see if the escort would mind.”
I checked with the senior guard. “No problem,” he said, “it’s only a half-hour flight.”
Jake and Anna were saying goodbye to Jed when I asked if they would like to take him back with them. They almost flattened me in their rush to get him into the troopship before I changed my mind. Masoko was laughing. “I don’t think they like that idea,” she said.
There were cries of glee when Jake and Anna arrived back at Breaker One with Jed in tow. The big dog suddenly had a lot of new friends, and the boys vied for his attention. There was no shortage of volunteers when it came time to exercise him.
* * *
It took Ed a lot of work to make sense of Jake and Anna’s legal affairs.
In the process he brought to light deficiencies in children’s services. Examples of this were the failure to appoint a trustee to manage the kids’ affairs and the fact that no one had arranged a funeral for their parents. To be fair, it appeared that the original case manager had begun the appropriate procedures, but when Jake and Anna had been transferred to the new manager and foster parents that action was interrupted. That didn’t explain why there had been no funeral, however. The case attracted widespread condemnation of the welfare authorities, with ‘Couple languish in morgue while children sold into porn ring’ being one of the more sensational headlines.
HI tried to shield Jake and Anna from the worst of the publicity, but they had to endure a large media presence at the funeral we arranged for their parents, even though it was supposed to be a private affair.
Eventually probate was granted on Jacob and Maria’s wills, and the children became, nominally, owners of the farm. In practice a trustee had to be appointed, to serve until Jake turned eighteen. The two kids were placed back with their first foster parents (and they were allowed to take Jed with them), and life gradually became more normal for them. They maintained contact with the Breaker kids and with me. In consultation with the trustee, and following a recommendation from the Macalisters, they found a tenant to manage the farm.
Six weeks after their investigation into the foster care system and the modelling agency began, i2 acted.
All of the adults associated with the agency were arrested, and a number of children were freed from virtual slavery. The foster parents who had got Jake and Anna involved with the agency were also picked up, along with the case manager who had placed the children with the couple, and his supervisor. Jake and Anna were saddened to learn that the driver who had helped them escape had died after the accident.
The IG investigation indicated that those people were not the only ones involved in dodgy practices within children’s services so the emperor set up a judicial inquiry with broad terms of reference to examine the entire child care system. Everyone at HI felt vindicated, when, even before the inquiry got underway, the director who had caused us so much trouble was replaced. The zealousness he demonstrated in pursuing HI was evidently not replicated in his management of the service he headed.
Jake and Anna’s story prompted one of my bouts of introspection.
If I just wanted time alone to think, I usually went for a walk in the palace gardens. If I felt like I needed a distraction, I’d go to the library and get lost in the wonderful books I found there. Sometimes, however, the introspection was accompanied by melancholy. On those occasions I retreated to my private rooms.
Thinking about the two kids and what had happened to them after their parents were murdered led to something different: a feeling of despair.
How could people who were supposed to have at heart the best interests of the kids in their care act in such ways? How could people hold kids captive and force them to do unmentionable things?
Through HI I was helping a small number of people, but there were so many needs. It all seemed too much. It was depressing, and I fell in a hole. One day, Darm found me lying on my bed in tears. He comforted me as much as he could, and eventually I dozed off.
I was awakened by a knock on my door. The emperor was standing there. Still groggy, I struggled to sit up. Marcus sat beside me and gave me a hug. I was still feeling sorry for myself. “There are so many needy people,” I said, dejectedly. “How on earth can we ever make things better for them?”
“Echo, it’s not something any one person can do. It will require a concerted effort from government, probably non-government organisations, and perhaps even private individuals. The problems, I’m sorry to say, have built up over time, and they’re symptomatic of the way we humans treat each other. There will always be people who try to take advantage of others.”
Marcus gave me a warm smile. “What we need is more companies like Döhm, that act responsibly and ethically, and more people like you, who don’t just talk about helping, but actually do something.” He put his arm around my shoulder. “You know, you have helped a lot of kids in a very short time, and you have done it efficiently and effectively. To achieve the same result I would have endless committee meetings, reports, plans, budgets, cost-benefit analyses, time schedules, and implementation strategies. There would have to be an executive structure with a CEO, CFO and COO—and a heap of other acronyms—not to mention their deputies. And that’s before we even appointed staff or got anything done! Then there would be feasibility studies, interim reports, follow-up reports, evaluation reports and final reports.”
He made me laugh, which I suppose was his aim.
“You just went out and did it. No fuss. No bother. You just got it done.”
That made me glow inside. I was pleased with all that HI had achieved so far.
But he had more. “And the thing that gives me the biggest thrill is that kids are running it all, and they are doing an amazing job.” He squeezed my shoulder. “Echo, you’re a great example for others to follow. You solve problems. And you do it very well. I’m proud of you, do you understand?”
I was choked up and my eyes were wet. All I could do was nod.
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