Puchard listened in a distracted manner as the woman rambled on, disregarding the details while remaining alert for the tells that inevitably revealed any criminal informant. The presence of the child was a discordant note although it hardly dispelled suspicion; although the participation of children was nominally forbidden in undercover police operations, that only made it all the more suspicious, being precisely the thing a determined narc would use to lend credibility to a sting.
“Anyway,” she concluded, “You seem to get on with the kids. You’re very giving with them.“
“It is true, I do have a holiness background,” Puchard demurred, “Stand still and consider the wondrous works.” He paused, shrugging with an apathetic modesty. ”Didn’t know you had a son though,” he added, gesturing to the boy with a nod.
“Well, yes, he’s my little man,” she admitted, pulling him close again, the boy smiling dumbly as he shifted his weight about on his unmoving feet, rotund body swaying about. “It’s been so hard,” she confided, her tone hushed. Puchard said nothing, jutting out his lower lip sympathetically. “I mean, he has his issues,” she intimated obliquely, her eyes shifting about, “But he’s a good little man.”
“I prefer to see kids like Raul as masterpieces in progress,” Puchard advised, beaming magnanimously.
“It’s hard,” she murmured in agreement, still gazing at the boy, “So hard.” She shook her head and raised her eyes, looking back at Puchard. ”But that’s the thing, I can’t really take him with me,” she resumed, her voice rising again, “At least not at first.”
Puchard nodded again, considering the situation carefully. He wasn’t precisely certain what variety of relief she was setting out towards – public or private, it was something she wasn’t clear on, although such was the indifference of Puchard’s attention that she may well have said without his taking of note – but the critical thing as he perceived it was that such environs weren’t amenable to a child of such gifts and talents as Raul.
It was to be expected considering the rapid decline in social order, Puchard thought, regarding the obviously stupid, overweight and physically graceless boy standing before him. Types like Raul’s mother were happy to have children when they were a means to social accommodation and preferential entitlement – a sort of Golden Key, as it were – but now the value of such compensation was fast dwindling, replaced only by the obligation, drudgery and sheer weight a child like Raul brought in his stead; with no commonsense and even less impulse control, it was easy to see why any collection of people preparing for a long and arduous struggle to survive would avoid including such spawn.
“It’s been hard, so hard,” she repeated, apparently concerned lest it be forgotten. “But anyways, it’s only for a few weeks,” she continued, “After that I would either come back for him or let you know where to send him.”
Puchard nodded, drawing his finger down his nose in a contemplative gesture. He considered taking Adele out back into the van to continue the negotiations in his accustomed manner but dismissed it at once; he had already spent himself just that morning with the blonde they abducted during their last robbery – a girl much more attractive than the sweat suit-clad former meth-head standing before him – and he was already anticipating a second course later that night.
He studied the boy, sizing him up. Although small for his size and obviously a bit touched, he could still serve as an added body during their jobs; even if he couldn’t be trusted with a firearm – a distinct possibility, Puchard decided, taking in his spectacularly unimpressive appearance – carrying bags and boxes seemed well within his capabilities.
“Well, why not,” Puchard announced, flashing an avuncular grin at the boy, “The more the merrier.”
“Oh, thank you,” the woman sighed, walking over to Puchard, arms open. Puchard stood reluctantly, tepidly returning the woman’s embrace and breaking it after the most perfunctory of durations. “Here’s his S-CHIP and SNAP paperwork,” she said, producing an envelope, “Although the hospitals and schools aren’t much use anymore.”
“What about the card?” Puchard asked curtly, peering into the envelope, “We need the card.”
“I must have left it at home,” she replied, looking off to the side. Puchard said nothing, regarding the woman with a mute and unwavering disapproval.
The woman frowned and resumed looking through her purse. “Wait, here it is!” she told him, handing him the EBT card.
“Well there it is,” Puchard murmured with approval, sliding the card into his pocket, eyes bright again.
The woman began to weep, hugging the boy. “Raul, don’t you worry,” she comforted, “Mommy’s gonna send for you soon. In the meantime, you just listen to your Uncle Pooch, he’ll make sure you’re OK.”
She turned to face Puchard. “Oh thank you!” she exclaimed, dabbing the tears from her eyes, “I think this could be just what Raul needs, a strong male figure. A good man is hard to find, so hard.”
“He’s gonna have a lot of fun with ol’ Uncle Pooch,” he agreed, strangely pleased by the new nickname. “And don’t worry ma’am, he’ll be fine,” he reassured her, sparing a smile for the boy, “Even the most primitive societies have respect for the simple-minded.”
She shot Puchard a quick glance of frustration – whether from the comment about primitive societies of simple-mindedness, he could neither divine nor, frankly, care – before her features cleared, regaining their evasive distraction.
“Well, yes, it’s been so hard, so hard,” she parroted dumbly.
She began to move towards the door, the boy surprisingly at ease with her departure, regarding the tattoo parlor with a rapt fascination. The mother paused and stepped closer to Puchard. “Could you front me a little something? Just a little blast for the road?” she asked hesitantly, her voice low. “I mean, I’ve been clean,” she added quickly, offering an explanation that could hardly have been of less interest to him.
Puchard regarded the woman with an exaggerated skepticism. “Why I don’t know,” he told her, cocking his head at the woman quizzically, “Rightly seems to me that foster parentin’ Raul is something you ought to be payin’ me for and not some pretext upon which to solicit reimbursement.”
The woman frowned and nodded weakly. She hugged Raul one last time and then walked out of the tattoo parlor, climbing into her vehicle and driving off amid the flashing of chrome plated plastic, never to be seen again.