Puchard had just turned south down Inkster when he saw the wisp of smoke rising through the air.
It was a typical winter day in southeastern Michigan, mid afternoon, frigid but calm. If there had been almost any degree of wind, the smoke would have remained imperceptible but the air was so still that it simply rose into the air, only tilting the slightest bit towards the east.
Puchard accelerated the van, craning his head to keep it in view – it had been weeks since they had come across sign of anyone else in the area – and he was anxious lest the wind pick up, obliterating their track.
Finally they found it, in a small complex of single story office buildings, copper colored windows mixed with dark brown bricks. They parked out of sight and approached the building on foot, Puchard examining the surroundings through a pair of binoculars. There was no sign of vehicle traffic in the snow but, after circling around to the back, he spotted some foot prints leading to a back door.
Puchard looked at it discerningly. Whoever was in the building wasn’t vehicle mobile; they also weren’t very seasoned, considering they were lighting a fire during the daylight with no wind. “OK, you four,” he gestured at the kiddos, “Come with me, the rest wait at the vehicles. Don’t shoot unless you have to.”
Puchard led the five to the front of the building. He taped and then quietly broke one of the windows into the suite. Hearing nothing, he removed the heavy revolver from its holster and climbed through, the others following.
The inside of the building was the type that rents offices with a large reception area at the front and past it, corridors leading to separate office suites. They walked through the building, looking about, Puchard following the kiddos around corners. The office section was deserted; all of the doors were open and it was obvious that someone had emptied them of what could be burned for heat.
They came to the back of the building and saw a door open into what appeared to be a mail room. Puchard motioned for one of the kiddos to look and the teen peered nervously through the doorway. “It’s a storage area,” he whispered to Puchard, “There’s an RV parked in there.”
Puchard nodded and motioned for them to enter. He stepped around the Christmas tree the occupants had set up and walked to the best position of cover, gesturing for the teen already there to displace. “Who’s in there?” he shouted, at the surrounded RV.
“It’s just me,” a female voice replied, obviously startled, tremulous with fear.
“How many of you are in there?” Puchard asked.
“Just me and my two kids,” the terrified voice answered.
Puchard breathed a sigh of relief. “Come out with your hands up,” he warned. At that a woman came to the side door of the RV followed by two children, a boy and a girl, age difficult to tell since they were Asian. Puchard motioned for them to stand still and the kiddos stepped forward, frisking her roughly.
When they pulled off her hat, Puchard noted with interest that she was rather attractive in the manner of many affluent White women: middle-aged of below medium height, light brown hair that bore the remains of blonde highlights on its grown out ends, blue eyes with clear skin and refined features, her face retaining a pleasing roundness despite their slender circumstances.
“Do you have any guns?” Puchard asked, regarding the woman flatly.
“Oh, heavens no,” she replied aghast. “I’ve never believed in them.”
“I know what you mean,” Puchard replied, his wariness easing. “It pains me to have to carry this,” he told her, gesturing to the Ruger Magnum as he slid it into its holster.
He looked the woman in the eyes and broke into a smile. “Forgive my suspicion,” he told her, his tone changing entirely, “It’s so hard to be sure of the people you meet nowadays.” The woman murmured a nervous agreement, shifting about anxiously. “My name is Rob Puchard,” he announced, offering his hand in greeting.
“My name is Bethany,” she offered almost apologetically, shaking his hand. “After so much time, we’ve barely left the building,” she told him, “It’s almost like a miracle to see someone again.”
“Signs and wonders,” Puchard intoned, smiling in agreement. “I can’t help but see providence at work in all of this myself.”
“So how did you come to seek refuge in such an unlikely location?” Puchard asked, looking about. He signaled for one of the kiddos to get their companions, watching the woman with interest.
“I’m part owner of this building,” she told him, “I used some of the space for my own business and rented the rest.”
Puchard nodded, fixing his gaze on the two children. “Why those sure are some adorable kids,” he drawled obsequiously.
“Thank you,” the woman told him, hugging the children to her anxiously, and introducing them, a ten year old boy named Alex and an eight year old girl named Angel. “They’re Burmese. They were orphaned refugees,” she explained, her voice racing, “I was on the Board of Directors for the Catholic Charitable and Relief Society, so I was able to visit there as part of a mission. I saw them at a camp and it was like we were all meant to be together.” She looked down and patted the children gently on the side of the head, the two staring apprehensively at the armed pack milling about them.
“I was raised Pentecostal myself,” Puchard replied, “But I’ve always had the highest regard for the charitable works of y’all of the Roman persuasion.”
Bethany frowned, appearing put off. “Well, yes,” she went on, resuming her smiling demeanor, “I’ve always tried to remember how fortunate I am and give something back.”
“Bless your heart,” Puchard complimented, mugging luridly at the frightened woman. “You must really love children.”
“Yes I do,” she replied, her eyes moving about anxiously at the people surrounding her. “Even though I was never blessed with children of my own, I’ve always felt the calling – my company made educational materials, mostly bilingual – so I’ve always been concerned with their needs.”
“Why, I know exactly what you mean,” Puchard agreed with an eager smirk, “I too have always tried my best to reach out to children, especially in light of our recent tragedy.”
“That’s nice,” she answered blandly, a fretful smile flashing on her lips.
He smiled and gestured at the Christmas tree the mother had put up, no doubt to comfort her children. “You know what they say about old acquaintances bein’ forgot,” he announced with a wink.
“I guess so,” she murmured, shifting about from foot to foot.
“Just remember,” he reassured the woman, grinning broadly and showing off his misshapen teeth, “A stranger is only a friend you never met.”
At that Puchard launched into a summary of his Plague experiences, regaling the wary woman with an account which was, at every level, completely false. According to his extemporaneous fabrication, Puchard was a Youth Counselor, working with disadvantaged teens at an Alternative Academy. “From one educator to another, I so disagree with terms like ‘troubled youth’ or ‘reform school’,” he told Bethany with a barely concealed disdain, “Labeling these children simply to cover for our own failures.”
Still, the imaginary ‘education’ Puchard engaged in wasn’t without its fictitious rewards. “It’s the most frustrating thing in the whole world but, when it’s cookin’ on a pure blue flame, there’s nothin’ like it,” he added as an aside, Bethany smiling with encouragement, her anxiety giving way to appreciation.
As the CNVE Outbreak became more serious, the fake Puchard found that more and more of the youth he ‘ministered’ to were orphaned – “Just like those sweet souls there,” he added, motioning at the Asian children hanging at Bethany’s side, his voice hitching convincingly – so he began to provide shelter for them under a program financed with a food and fuel allowance issued as part of the Emergency Act. “It fit in with my experience,” he told the woman, “I taught courses on hurricane preparedness in Louisiana – so much work to be done after Katrina.”
“That was such a tragedy for your state,” Bethany comforted.
“Why thank you for your kind thoughts,” Puchard answered unctuously. “But it prepared me for the trial yet to come. Anyway, thanks to President Jeantel for the support he offered in this case,” Puchard continued, Bethany nodding and voicing her agreement, “Guiding our nation in its time of need.”
Their first shelter was in the basement of the charitable foundation he worked with as a volunteer. “The New World Triumphant Praise Center,” Puchard added, smiling at his invented detail, “Of course it was nondenominational, mostly life appreciation preaching, teachin’ them how to stand in their truth, but it’s more about the kids than the message. Like the book says, love always wins.”
But soon they had to abandon their ‘praise center’ and seek safer refuge elsewhere, Puchard alluding to some harrowing and deeply grieved event. Their invented existence was hardscrabble and perilous but also replete with a frontier life sense of fellowship. Still, Puchard didn’t want to minimize the difficulty – “So challenging to be responsible for children in these times,” he told her confidentially, “Some of the things I’ve had to do-“ he trailed off, shifting his eyes about in a pantomime of regret. But his words found a sympathetic ear in Bethany, the kindly woman nodding with sad understanding and placing her hand on the sleeve of his jacket, Puchard suppressing a wolfish smile.
It was an odd thing; before the Plague Puchard had viewed his skill at deception as nothing more than a means to an end, simply seeking to convince his victims to abandon their defenses for the few moments necessary to surrender their safety to him. But now that the need to coax and lure were gone, with nothing to stop him from seeking his release when and where and how he pleased, he suddenly saw the preliminaries, the repartee, in a new light. It was as if, liberated from the unease over discovery, he was now secure to savor the little details he once lost in the rush. The ties that bind, he mused, watching the woman pulling her adopted children close to her.
“You have to understand,” Puchard admitted at the end, “This isn’t just a job anymore, it’s a calling. Doin’ the Master’s work, if I may be so bold.” He paused, giving the appearance of searching for words.
“I may be a simple man,” he finally told her, his voice dropping an octave in a parody of sincerity, “but I do know what love is.”