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Undercover Agent - Episode Nine

As soon as Karla and the rest of Baku's gang got into the van to go to Zakim's headquarters, she took the location chip from where she had hidden it and slipped it in into her pocket. In the rush to leave, no one noticed. Then, as Jamal was climbing into the driver's seat, she yelled, "Wait! I left my pack in the trailer. Gimme a minute."

When she got out of the van, she threw the chip as far away as she could, went into the trailer to get her pack, then hurried back to the van. "Let's go," she said as she pulled the rear door shut.

Jamal hit the gas and followed Jack away from the trailer in a cloud of dust.

Thirty minutes later, Jamal pulled into a bay in Zakim's warehouse in Southeast Portland and cut the engine. The van's rear door flew open and Jack, holding a pistol at his side, said, "Everybody, inside."

"Why the gun?" Frank asked as he climbed out the back.

Jack waved the pistol in Frank's direction. "Just go."

~    ~    ~

While Jack herded Baku's gang into a back office in the warehouse, in another part of town, FBI Agent James was on the phone with Captain Tabor.

"It's three in the morning. What's goin' on?" Tabor, roused from a deep sleep, asked irritably.

"We got the girls They're at Emanuele Hospital. But Karla, and the rest of Baku's guys, are at Zakim's headquarters in Southeast.

Tabor tried hard to clear his head. "That's great, at least about the girls. But. what do you want me to do about Karla? It's three in the morning."

"Shouldn't we get her out of there? Zakim's gonna figure that she set up the bust of his shipment of girls He'll kill her . . . or worse."

It took a few seconds for Tabor to respond. "Darrel . . . calm down. Take a breath. Put yourself in Karla's shoes. She's no dummy, right? She's done okay so far, right? Let's think this through."

"But . . ."

"Darrel! Stop!" Tabor glanced at his wife who was stirring awake, then threw the covers off his side of the bed and sat up. "Meet me at the Starbucks at 102nd and Stark in thirty minutes. We'll figure out what to do."

~    ~    ~

Zakim was on the phone when Jack came into his office and took a chair in front of his boss's massive desk. "Don't worry," Zakim said into his mobile more confidently than he should have. "We'll get those bitches back. Looks like it was the Russians that got 'em." Then, after a pause, "I don't know. Maybe they followed Baku, the guy snatching the girls." Another pause. "No way. Baku's loyal. Ain't no way he'd do that. He's one of us. Maybe it was one of his guys that tipped off the Ruskies. I'm gonna get on that now—I'll get back to you later." Zakim ended the call and told Jack to bring Jamal in."

"Sit down," Zakim said when Jack led Jamal to Zakim's desk. "Jack. Leave us alone. I'll call if I need you."

"Zakim watched Jamal take the only other chair in the room, directly in front of his desk. "Who told the Russians about tonight?"

"I don't know nothin 'bout that. Don't think it was none of us. We just doin' our job. Getting' it done."

"How'd they know about the transfer? About the girls?"

"No idea."

"What about Karla? Think she might be a mole for the cops—or the Russians?"

"I don't think so. She's a hard-ass, but a good one. She keeps us focused. Even got Frank under control. She's okay."

Zakim was silent for a moment, then said, "Is she trying to take over from Baku?"

"No way. She supports him. She helps him keep us on track, that's all. Like a mother—or something. She made it easier on those girls, too."

"All right. Tell her to come in here."

A minute later, Karla was sitting in the chair across from Zakim.

"What happened tonight?" Zakim said accusingly.

"That's what I was gonna ask you—boss. How all our work got blown away in a Russian shit-storm. Three nights of precision snatches pissed away in less than ten minutes. You think we spent three nights doing this for the fun of it?"

"Knock it off, bitch. Remember who you're working for. Show some respect."

Karla sprung from the chair, leaned forward and planted her fists on top of the desk. "Don't ever call me that again. I'm not your bitch! Or anybody else's. And I want to know what's going on around here. Because it doesn't seem like you know. If you did, you'd be finding out how those Russian bastards knew what we were doing. And it's not because any of Baku's team ratted us out. We're in this to make money, and we sure as hell wouldn't do that by cozying up to the Russian mafia.

Zakim was shocked by Karla's sudden eruption and at first wasn't sure how to react. But he quickly regained his composure. "Sit down. Somebody has to be talking to the Russians, if it was them, or the Feds, if they were involved. If it ain't you or another one of Baku's crew, then who?"

Karla let her expression of rage relax and sat down. "If you're sure it wasn't someone close to you, then maybe there is no mole. Maybe somebody got a fix on us and has been following us all this time. Or maybe they put a tracker on one of our vehicles. There're all kinds of hi-tech gadgets that could be used to track what we're doing. Could be the Russians followed us, watching us collect the girls. Waited to grab them before the buyer showed up. We shouldn't automatically assume someone inside this organization is an informer. There's too many other possibilities"

Zakim didn't say anything for a while. Finally, he said, "It's the Russians. They been wantin' to get into this game for a long time, but we've kept them out 'cause we're better at it. We control the market, from Mexico to Seattle. Twenty girls a month, that's our average. It's not our main source of income, but it's enough to make a difference. I ain't gonna lose it to those bastards."

"Whadaya mean it's not our main source of money? What else is there?"

"Nothin' that concerns you. Your job is to help Baku. Help him supply the girls."

"I'm getting bored with girl-snatching. Anybody with half a brain can do that. I can do more. Let me help with these other things, whatever they are.

Again, Zakim fell into silence, as if he were analyzing Karla's words. Then, "I'll think about it. Now get the hell out and tell Baku to get in here."

~    ~    ~

While Zakim was interrogating members of his gang, Agent James and Captain Tabor sat at a corner table in the Starbucks, as far across the room as possible from the only other customer. "Fill me in on what went down tonight," Tabor said. And I'm still pissed that my guys weren't in on it."

"Like I told you before, Chief Marx wanted this to be an FBI action. You know, politics."

"I get it. So, what happened?"

"Our guys pretended to be Russian. They had a location from the chip Karla planted in their van, so it was no problem finding them. We timed the raid so it was before Zakim's buyer got there. We knew about the pickup time from phone calls we monitored."

"Sounds like it was a success. Congratulations."

"Thanks. But Karla should get the credit for it. She made it possible."

"Right. So, the question is, what danger is she in now?" Tabor asked.

"The more I think about what she's been able to do so far, the more I think she'll bullshit her way past any suspicion that she was responsible for a tipoff that resulted in the Russian mafia stealing their girls. At least I hope so. She's gotten this far into Zakim's world, why wouldn't she be able to keep going?"

"She's pretty good at this, isn't she." Tabor swallowed the rest of his coffee. "All right, let's see what happens over the next couple of days. But if we don't hear from her by the day after tomorrow, we're going in after her. Okay?"

"Okay. I'll set it up with Marx."

~    ~    ~

It was around noon when Karla woke. When she opened her eyes, she instantly remembered she was back in her tent in the North Portland homeless camp, and she felt a wave of relief come over her. As her head cleared, she remembered Jamal bringing her and Baku back to the camp early that morning after hours of grueling interrogation by Zakim about the loss of the girls the night before. She remembered how after a while she had shut Zakim and his relentless droning out of her mind, but whatever they told him must have been enough to convince him that Baku's gang was in the clear. Then she recalled her conversation with Zakim about his gang's other activities. How she had tried to wheedle herself into whatever else he was into but was kept out by his refusal to talk about it. She had planted the seed, though, and now all she could do was to wait to see what sprouted. But there was one thing she was certain of—she wasn't going to let that sowing go untended until it yielded results."

Karla found Rosa at the fire pit and managed to get a couple of sandwiches and some coffee from her, promising to replenish the common larder with some new supplies later that day. She then went to Baku's tent where she found him still asleep. "Wake up! We got stuff to talk about."

A few minutes later Baku crawled out and joined Karla in the shade of a nearby Doug fir.

'Here's a sandwich . . . compliments of Rosa."

Baku took the sandwich and the coffee without saying anything.

Karla didn't waste time getting to the point. "What else is Zakim into besides selling girls?"

"What are you talking about? If he was, how would I know, anyway?"

"You've been with him long enough to know a lot. Tell me."

"Why you wanna know that? It ain't none of your business. There's some things it's better not knowing about."

"Baku. You trust me, don't you?"

"Yeah, I guess so."

"Okay. I'll be honest with you. Zakim needs my help. Last night he told me that some of his other deals were in danger of going bad. And that he saw how I had helped you get more focused on collecting the girls, and how Jamal and Frank were doing a better job, not causing you so many headaches. He told me how pleased he was with how you are running your operation now."

"He said that?"

"Yes, he did. He also told me to talk to you about how I could help him with his other problems."

"Why didn't he tell me that?" Karla sensed the skepticism in his question.

"He was going to but was interrupted by a phone call. Must have been from someone he reports to, because he seemed kinda scared. He told me to leave so he could talk in private."

Baku hesitated a moment, then said, "Maybe it was from a guy in LA named Olatunji."

"Oh yeah. Zakim's mentioned him to me once. Said he was the big boss."

"That's right," Baku said. "He's in charge of everything."

Everything? What's that mean?"

"All the stuff the gang's into."

"Besides girls? What else?"

"We're not supposed to talk about it," Baku said defensively, as if he knew Karla wouldn't let up until she got answers.

"It's okay. He was gonna tell you to fill me in on our other activities before he got that call from Olatunji."

"He was?"

"Yeah. He was. I wouldn't lie to you. You should know that by now. I'm your partner, and partners trust each other."

Baku took a swig of the coffee, then finished the sandwich. "You sure he wants me to tell you all what we're doing?"

"Sure as sure can be," Karla said as she moved closer to Baku then pressed the RECORD button on the recorder in her coat pocket."

~    ~    ~

Late that night in a conference room at the FBI center in Northeast Portland, Agent James and Captain Tabor huddled over a tape player. "This is a goldmine," Tabor said after the tape ended. Forty-seven minutes that could bust up Zakim's gang and put him and his buddies in jail for a long time."

"Maybe," James said. "We need solid proof. Without it, it'd just be the recorded word on a low-level errand boy against Zakim and a team of hot-shot defense lawyers. And the recording was made without the guy's knowledge. Anyway, we knew about some of this stuff. Although not the gun smuggling—that's helpful. But we need more than this."

Tabor set the player to rewind then refilled their cups with the last of the coffee. "If you knew about the drug dealing and murder for hire activities, and all the rest, why haven't you arrested him?"

"Because we don't have that solid proof. We've got plenty of suspicion, some circumstantial evidence, but nothing that would satisfy a judge."

"So, this tape is of no value?"

"I wouldn't say that. It points us in another direction—the guns. If Karla could find out where Zakim warehouses them, and we find them in his possession, we'd have him on a major Federal charge."

"That would put her at considerable risk."

James didn't say anything in response to Tabor's observation.

Tabor stood and slipped on his jacket. "I don't like it. Nosing around these other things Zakim's doing could get her killed."

James stood and prepared to leave with Tabor. "That's what we're paying her for, isn't it?"

Undercover Agent - Episode Eight

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The second day of scouting targets and their abductions that night went as smoothly as it had the day before. The procedure was simple and when properly executed was unfailingly successful. The three critical elements were: targeting an appropriate victim, absence of witnesses, and speed. Baku and his team, Jamal, Frank, and now Karla, performed like a precision machine. When switched on, it was impossible to resist its efficiency. The two-day flurry of activity resulted in the capture of seventeen girls or young women. They were chained to each other and crammed into an ancient mobile home on an abandoned, sprawling woodlot in a small, rural community northeast of Portland. After one more day of abductions, the captives would be sold to a human trafficking ring and disappear without a trace. This was the business Zakim Olahyinka, Baku’s boss, was in, the supply of female chattel. Along with his other criminal activities, it was helping make him wealthy far beyond anything he could have imagined as an orphan Nigerian immigrant in Los Angeles thirty years earlier.

But Zakim’s despicable pursuits had not gone unnoticed, especially by the human trafficking team in the Portland regional FBI office. Although this group, under the leadership of Agent Darrel James, had been tracking Zakim for several years, they hadn't been able to obtain rock-solid evidence of his nefarious dealings that would stand up in a court of law—he was just too careful. But with Karla Hammer inserted into Zakim’s gang as an undercover agent, maybe, just maybe, they could obtain proof that would end this cruel enterprise. Now, with James’s career on the line, everything he had been working on over the past ten years suddenly depended on an unproven, untrained wildcard—a middle-aged, homeless woman with a criminal record. What she would do in the next few days would determine the fate of this investigation, the careers of himself as well as that of Captain Tom Tabor of the Portland Police Department, and possibly that of Hanna Marx, Agent in Charge of the Portland FBI office. In view of these complexities, it may be hard to understand how important the response would be to Karla’s command when sitting at a corner table in the Burrito King on Lombard with Baku and the other two gang members, she said, “Frank. Get me some more of the green salsa.”

Conversation suddenly froze, and all eyes focused on Karla. At first Frank didn’t move and just stared at the woman who only a few minutes before he had intended to hit but had been stopped by Jamal. A look of confusion flooded his face. When Karla didn’t avert her gaze from him, Frank turned to Baku, then Jamal—neither said anything. This was between Karla and Frank.

“Well?” Karla said with considerable firmness, still staring at him.

Frank mumbled something inaudible under his breath, stood up and went to the counter and asked for more salsa. “The green kind,” he said.

“Thank you, Frank,” Karla said, when he placed the plastic container of salsa in front of her.

“Eat up,” Baku said softly after Frank sat down. “We got another big day ahead of us. And night, too.”

*          *         *

Later that same day, after the camp was quiet and Karla knew that Baku was catching some much-needed shuteye before they embarked on the last night of abductions, she snuck away to the drop site. She retrieved the note and a plastic baggie Tabor left for her. Back in her shelter, she read the message with the help of a penlight.

Hide this magnetic location chip in the van where it won’t be seen. We will rescue girls at trailer. Tell Zakim you heard a rumor about an FBI raid. Maintain Zakim’s trust at all costs. Destroy the chip after the raid.

*          *         *

Around three a.m., Jamal pulled the van alongside the dilapidated mobile home at the end of a barely recognizable dirt path and cut the engine. “All right, Let’s unload ‘em,” Baku said, as he opened the passenger side door and started to get out.

Karla reached over the seatback and grabbed his shoulder. “Get Zakim on the phone. I gotta talk to him.”

“Come on, Sue. I can’t call him every time you wanna tell him something. I’ll give him a report later like I always do. After everything’s done. When these bitches are got rid of.”

“Call him. It’s important,” she insisted and tightened her grip.

“Go on, call,” Jamal said. “Better do what she says.”

Baku was startled by Jamal’s demand and could tell he meant it. Even though he didn’t want to, he clicked on Zakim’s name.

“What?” Zakim answered.

Baku handed the phone to Karla. “We might have a problem. I got a message today to stay away from Baku’s gang tonight. Don’t know what it means, but I don’t like it. The feds might be planning something. How would they know what we’re doing?”

“You tell me. You talk to anyone about what you been doing?” Zakim demanded.

“That’s a stupid question. Of course not. But I don’t know about my friends here. Can we trust them? Is there anyone at your end that might be a mole?”

“You’re the only one I know who talks to the FBI. Maybe you settin’ us up,” If you are, you’re gonna be one sorry lady.”

“You and me got a deal. I’m not gonna screw that up. So just take this warning for what it is. Don’t let anything mess up this transfer. We worked hard to get these girls. We got nine more tonight. That gives us a total of twenty-six. That’s gonna be some good money—at least fifteen thousand each. Which, by the way, my team’s gonna want a bigger piece of.”

Your team? What the hell you talking about? Baku’s your boss. And the money ain’t nonna’ your business.”

“Sorry, Zakim, I couldn’t hear that. This phone battery’s going dead.” She ended the call, handed the phone back to Baku and said, “Let’s get to work.”

*          *         * 

“What’s going on?” Jack, Zakim’s lieutenant, asked when Zakim slammed his phone down on the table.

“I don’t know. Sue told me she thinks the feds might be on to us. Could be nothing. But we can’t take any chances, Gotta get those girls outta there. Call Zorn and tell him to hurry up.”

“I talked to him a few minutes ago,” Jack said. “The truck’s on I-5 this side of Salem. They’ll get to Fairview in an hour or so. I’ll take Larry and Tiger and meet him at the trailer, make sure everything goes okay, and collect the money.”

“Pay off Baku’s guys. If Sue gives you a hard time about how much she’s getting, sell her with the other ones—half price. Zorn should snap her up if she’s that cheap. If he refuses, get rid of her. Burry the body where it won’t be found.

“No problem. I’ll keep you posted.”

*          *         *

 As Frank was taking the last girl from the van to the trailer, and Baku, Karla, and Jamal were inside preparing the girls for the transfer, the rumble of a heavy vehicle approaching along the dirt road caught his attention. “Come on,” he said to the terrified young girl he had pulled out of the rear of the van, her eyes and mouth taped, and her hands and feet tightly bound. He had to half carry, half drag her through the dirt toward the trailer door. When he got to the entrance, he yelled, “The truck’s here.”

“They’re early,” Baku said.

“Not all of these girls are ready,” Karla yelled, her ski mask muffling her voice.

“Don’t worry,” Baku said. “Sometimes the buyer’s early. They’ll wait. Just hurry up. Jamal! Get them chains off those ones over there,” Baku said, pointing at a group of girls cringing in the hall leading to a back bedroom. “Tape their eyes and chain ‘em in threes.”

The truck pulled alongside the van, but the noise of the engine didn’t stop. Suddenly the trailer door flew open with a loud crash and two masked, camo-clothed men brandishing automatic weapons burst into the body-strewn room.

“Outside!” the one in front screamed in a strong foreign accent, motioning toward Frank and Jamal, who were close by tending to some of the girls. ‘You too!” he said to Baku, then turned to Karla, “and you. Out!”

Once outside, Baku and his companions were confronted by two men in ski masks pointing guns at them. “On the ground,” one ordered, also with an accent. The other quickly cuffed Baku and his gang with plastic restraints, bound their ankles, then checked them for guns. “They’re clean,” he said in a language Baku and the others recognized as Russian.

The four men then hastily took the whimpering and terrified captives, some led, some carried, some dragged, from the trailer to the truck and loaded them into its enclosed cargo box. Ten minutes later, the truck was gone.

Lying on the ground outside the trailer, hands and legs bound, Baku and his companions knew they had to tell Zakim what had happened as soon as possible. Frank rolled and scooted his body to a position where Jamal could work his hand into Frank’s pocket and withdraw a switchblade. After Jamal cut Frank’s plastic restraints, he freed the others. But as Baku was getting his phone out, they heard and saw an SUV emerge from the woods and speed into the clearing where the trailer was sitting. When it came to a halt, Jack jumped out and ran to where they stood.

“We gotta get these girls outta here. The feds might be coming.”

“It’s too late,” Baku yelled. “The Russians took them.”

“Whadaya mean?” Jack screamed, as two more of Zakim’s gang members got out of the SUV and joined him. Baku described what had just happened, emphasizing how certain he and the others were that the hijackers spoke Russian.

“I gotta call the boss,” Jack blurted out. But before he could punch in the number, they all spun around to where another SUV was speeding into the clearing, followed closely by two more.

“What the hell is this? Jack cried out. Who are these guys?”

The lead SUV slid to a stop and four Kevlar-clad men jumped out and rushed forward, aiming automatic rifles at the seven Zakim gang members huddled in front of the trailer.

“On the ground,” one of the men yelled. “Now!”

Seconds later the two other SUVs pulled up and suddenly there were eight more armed men approaching the trailer.

Two of the men made a quick frisk of the gang, finding and taking away pistols from Jack and his two cohorts.

“Check inside. Find the hostages,” another of the men said.

“There ain’t no hostages here,” Baku hollered.” Who are you?”

The man who had ordered the trailer search went to where Baku lay on the ground. He pulled a small black leather wallet from his pocket and flipped it open to display a bronze-colored badge. “FBI,” he said. “You’re under arrest for kidnapping.”

Before Baku could respond, a man came out of the trailer and said, “There’s no one here.”

“Looks like you’re in the wrong place, mister,” Jack said.

Ignoring Jack, the FBI man said, “Check the woods. They gotta be here someplace.”

A few minutes later, one of the FBI leader’s men rushed up and said, “No sign of any hostages, Sir.”

“Where are they?” the leader asked Jack.

“I don’t know what you're talkin’ about.”

“What are you and these people doing here?” the FBI man asked aggressively, looking around at the Zakim gang.

“We’re having a book club meeting. Is there a law against book clubs?” Jack answered.

The FBI agent fought hard to control his rage, but realizing he had no evidence to act on, he turned to his men and yelled, “Let’s go. There’s nothing here.”

As soon as the FBI team was gone, Jack called Zakim. “The Russians ripped us off. They took the girls. Must have been the Ratsov gang.”

“What? The girls are gone? I’ll kill that bastard Ratsov if he did this.”

“About a half hour ago,” Jack said. “Then a bunch of FBI storm troopers showed up, looking for the girls. They left just before we got here.”

“Damn! What the hell’s going on? How’d Ratsov and the feds know about tonight. We got a leaky faucet we gotta fix. And fix it fast.”

“Want me to question Baku’s gang?”

“Yeah, later. First, we gotta get those girls back. How long ago was it?” Zakim asked, panic evident in his voice. “You got a description of what they were driving?”

Jack got a description of the truck from Frank and Jamal and told Zakim.

“That fits hundreds of trucks, no way we’d be able to locate it. Bring Baku and the others back here. Then we’ll figure out what to do.”

*          *         *

 Meanwhile, miles away in Northeast Portland, the twenty-six traumatized female abduction victims were being admitted into the emergency trauma ward at Emanuel Hospital under the supervision of FBI Agent Darrel James. So far, his cursory questioning had not yielded information that would be helpful in proving who was responsible for their capture. After the attending physicians told him to leave, he called his boss, Hannah Marx. “We know from Hammer who hijacked these girls, but from what the girls tell me, they were kept in the dark—never saw anything. No idea who grabbed them, or where they were taken, except that it was three men and a woman. They could tell that from their voices.”

“All right. Go home and let the doctors get on with their work. I want a detailed report on this operation tomorrow morning. And I want the Hammer woman here, too. By the way, well done. 

To be continued . . .

Undercover Agent - Episode Seven

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In the dark of night, two mismatched figures crept along a dirt path paralleling an abandoned rail track that had served a booming wartime manufacturing site decades earlier. The taller one, a wiry black man in his mid-twenties, was earnestly giving instructions to his companion, a white woman in her thirties who was struggling to keep up with his fast pace. Years of relying on her battered oak cane allowed her to keep her limp at a minimum and match the man's stride.

“You’ll stay in the van and cuff ‘em when me and Frank take ‘em in. Tape their mouth and eyes, then their legs. We’ll hold ‘em down, but you gotta do it fast. Can you do that?

“I’ll do it, don’t worry. But why so fast? Karla asked, suspecting she already knew the answer.

“Less chance of being spotted—and identified.”

They walked on in silence

“There’s the van,” Baku said a minute later, pointing to a dark form half-hidden under a giant oak at the far side of an expansive parking lot belonging to the food services company.

One of the two men standing beside a late-model, windowless, dirty green Ford van, greeted Baku in a low voice as he and Karla approached. “You’re late.”

Baku glanced at his phone. “Cool it, Frank. Five minutes ain’t gonna kill us.” He nodded at Karla. “This is Sue.” Pointing at a big black guy, he said, “That’s Jamal.” He turned to a white guy. “That’s Frank.”

Jamal said, “How’s a crippled woman gonna do what’s gotta get done?”

“Couple months ago, she beat a man to death with that stick she’s got there. She’ll be all right,” Baku said, unable to suppress a tinge of pride in his voice, or perhaps just unaware of it.

“She better be all right. If she ain’t, that little stick ain’t gonna do her no good,” Jamal said, giving his head a flip so his long dreads swung around.

Knowing she needed to diffuse the situation, Karla took a step toward Jamal and stuck out her hand. “Glad to meet you, Jamal. Baku’s said good things about you.”

Jamal glanced at Baku, then reluctantly stepped forward and shook her hand, careful not to crush it with his powerful grip.

Frank watched in silence as Karla deftly brought Jamal to heel, then spat out, “Cut the shit, lady. We gotta get this show on the road.” He slid the side door open and said, “You and me’ll be in there. Baku's up front with Jamal, who’ll be driving. When they spot a target and pull over, I’ll jump out and help Baku grab her. When we get her in, you gotta be ready to do your part. There’s plastic cuffs and duct tape in that box.” He pointed at a wooden crate secured to the back of the passenger seat. “All right. Everybody ready?”

A moment later they were on their way.

Frank and Karla sat on the bare metal floor cater-corner from each other, legs stretched out in front of them. Although the interior was dimly lit, Karla was able to get a closer look at her partner. He appeared to be in his forties, had close-cropped blondish hair and was clean-shaven. Although a little shorter than she was, he was muscular like a weight lifter, and was heavily tattooed, including numbers and symbols at various places on his neck. He had the cruel eyes and cold look of a hardened criminal with no limits on what he might do. In contrast to Jamal, whom she saw as a big teddy bear trying to be tough, this man frightened her, and Karla was not easily frightened.

Up front, in the passenger seat, Baku scrolled through entries in his phone from the day before while Jamal drove east on Lombard, taking care to stay under the speed limit. “Take MLK to the Lloyd District,” Baku said. There’s two that looked good on Eighth, just north of Clackamas Street.”

Twenty minutes later, Jamal turned north on Eighth, pulled over to the curb, and doused the lights. “It’s that blue-tarp shelter up there,” Baku said, looking at a lone camp site in the dim shadows of a large tree halfway up the block. “Stay here. I’ll check it out.” He eased the door open and stepped onto the sidewalk.

“Get ready,” Frank told Karla. “There’ll be two of em if it happens.”

Karla got two FlexiCuffs and a roll of tape from the crate and laid them next to her. Frank noticed that her hands were shaking. “You gonna be able to do this?” he barked more as a challenge than a question.

“I’ll do it,” was all she said, holding his gaze until he looked away.

Then, a little less aggressively, he said, “Put pieces of tape on that.” He nodded at a metal rod clamped to the bare sidewall, spanning two of the struts. “For their eyes and mouth.”

She quickly did what he told her to do—four six-inch lengths of grey duct tape were then ready to be grabbed.

“Tear off the piece for their legs after you wrap it around their ankles. Jamal will help hold ‘em down while you do it. You gotta be fast.”

Karla nodded. “Yeah, I know.”

A moment later, Baku eased open the door. “They’re inside their tent, and there's nobody else around.” He glanced up and down the street, then climbed back into his seat. He pulled the door shut but didn’t let it latch. “Let’s do it. Get your masks on.”

Frank pulled on a black ski mask, then silently slid the side door open and got ready to jump out. Karla found one in the crate and put it on.

Jamal eased the van slowly up the street, lights off and keeping the engine noise as low as possible.

When Jamal stopped next to the shelter, Baku and Frank rushed to the makeshift tent and ripped away the tarps. At the same time, Jamal shifted to park, stepped between the front bucket seats, and knelt next to Karla. “Get ready,” he said, then glanced at the tape pieces hanging next to her. She took a piece and held it by its two ends. Her hands were no longer shaking.

The two girls woke to being jerked upright by someone yanking them by their hair and clamping strong hands over their mouths before they had a chance to cry out or speak a single word. Before they understood what was happening, they were being held down on a cold, metal floor. Tape was being stretched across their mouths, then their eyes. Attempts to scream and struggle were useless. They couldn’t move their legs, then felt tight binding looping around their ankles. Then someone roughly turned them face down and their hands were tightly strapped together behind them. It hurt, and all they could do was whimper and roll their heads side to side, but it did no good. They were helpless, had no idea why this was happening, and were overcome with fear.

In less than a minute, Jamal was back at the wheel, the doors were closed, and the van was moving ahead, not too fast, not attracting attention as it turned left on Broadway and headed to the next target on Baku’s list.

It was a little after 4 a.m. when Baku told Jamal to head out to Fairview, a Portland suburb ten miles east along the Columbia River. Half an hour later, they arrived at a wooded, two-acre lot at the end of a dirt road off Sandy Boulevard. Jamal pulled up next to a double-wide, trashed-out mobile home and cut the engine. Baku got out and opened the side door of the van. “Let’s get ‘em inside.”

*          *         

As Baku was drifting off to sleep back in his tent in the predawn hours, his phone buzzed. It was Zakim. “How’d it go?”

“Good. There’s eight of ‘em in the trailer.”

“We need at least twenty. More than that if you can find 'em.”

“Yeah. I know. We’re going out again tonight—gonna get the ones Frank and Jamal spotted yesterday. Me and Sue gonna scout up some this afternoon, too.”

“How’d she do?” Zakim asked.

“She did good. She’ll be able to replace Max. Having four makes everything go better.”

“All right. Guess I’ll keep her around a little longer. But watch her close. There’s something funny about her.”

“Don’t worry, I will.”

*          *         *

An hour after she got back to her tent, Karla felt it would be safe to sneak out to the drop site while it was still dark. On her way out of the camp, she stopped by Baku’s tent to make sure he was asleep. Light snoring from inside told her he was. Ten minutes later she slipped a plastic baggie with a note in it under the barrel, then hurried back to the camp. She was in serious need of sleep, knowing another long day awaited her.

*          *         *

“What’s it say?” Agent James asked Tabor, who sat across the table in the restaurant holding the note from Karla he’d retrieved from the barrel drop site that morning.

Eight girls abducted tonight and kept in a trailer near the Columbia. I think it’s east of town. But I don’t know where. Will get more girls in the next two days. They’ll be taken away at night the day after tomorrow. Do something.

“We gotta get a fix on that trailer,” James said.

“How we gonna do that? We don’t even know what vehicle they’re in, so we can’t follow them.”

James thought for a moment, then said, “We’ll give her a location device to hide in the vehicle they’re using. We’d know where they are every minute. I’ll get one and meet you at the parking lot in an hour. You can leave it for her at the barrel.” James got up and hurried out the door, leaving the tab for Tabor, who this time didn’t mind at all.

*          *         *

At twelve noon, Baku, Karla, Frank and Jamal were sitting at a corner table in the Burrito King on Lombard waiting for their orders to come up. “Me and Sue gonna check out Northeast,” Baku said to the others. “You two see what you can find along Route 30 toward Scappoose. Check along the river. We’ll meet tonight at the same place. At midnight.”

“What about the girls at the trailer?” Karla asked.

“Whaddya mean?” Frank replied. “They’ll be there until they’re gone. Whaddya expect, maid service?”

Karla turned to face Frank and said, “I expect humane treatment of those girls, that’s what I expect. Water, blankets, loosening their cuffs. You got a problem with that?

Frank was caught off guard by Karla’s sudden eruption, but quickly recovered and said, “We ain’t running a girl’s finishing school. They ain’t gonna die in a couple a days. They’ll be gone Friday night. So, get off your high horse and leave it alone. It’s none of your damn business, anyway.”

Karla knew this was a critical point in her relationship with this little band of lowlifes, and, without a moment’s hesitation, plunged ahead. She turned to Baku, “Call Zakim. I wanna talk to him. Now!”

Baku was taken aback by her sudden assertive attack. “What the hell you talking about? This ain’t none of your concern. I ain’t calling him just because you say so.”

“Do it!” she said, slapping her hand down on the table.

Unable to tolerate anymore of Karla’s outrageous behavior, Frank drew back his arm and uncoiled a swing at her face. But before he connected, Jamal, in a lightning-fast move, grabbed his wrist and twisted it backwards almost to the breaking point.

Frank suppressed a scream and groaned, “Okay. Let go.”

Karla nodded at Jamal, who released his grip but didn’t take his eyes off Frank. Ignoring Frank, she turned to Baku and said, “Call him!”

The intensity of her command, Frank’s sudden blowup, and Jamal’s quick action to protect her, shocked all of them. After a prolonged silence, Baku reluctantly said, “All right, but don’t expect him to be happy about it.”

“What?” Zakim answered when Baku called. “This better be important.”

“Sue said she gotta to talk to you,” Baku said and handed his phone to Karla without waiting to hear what Zakim would say.

“What’s going on? What you want?” Zakim said angrily after Karla said hello.

“We gotta take better care of those girls,” Karla said, charging ahead and ignoring Zakim’s questions. “Leaving them tied and taped is torture, and it decreases their value. We’ll get more for them if they’re in better shape.

Surprised at Karla’s boldness, but unable to ignore her reference to money, he held back the threat he had intended to make. Instead, after a slight pause, he said, “What are you saying?”

“Send someone out there to look after them. Keep 'em in decent shape. Locked up, or chained up, so they can’t escape, but out of pain. They gotta have water and food, and access to a bathroom. They gotta be clean and look healthy so a buyer will see that they’re getting something of value.”

“Are you wanting that job? Is that what’s this all about?” Karla detected suspicion in his questions.

“No! I don’t wanna be a baby sitter. The crew needs four people. I wanna keep doing what we did last night.”

“I’ll think about it,” Zakim said, then cut off the call.

Karla handed the phone back to Baku, turned to Jamal and said, “Why don’t you see if our food’s ready. They don’t bring it to the table. Gotta pick it up over there.” She nodded at the counter where the cooks put the burritos when they’re done. As Jamal was making his way to the food counter, Karla reached over and laid her hand on Frank’s arm. “Every thing’s gonna be okay, Frank. Just trust me.” Their eyes met briefly before Frank yanked his arm away and mumbled, “We’ll see.”

“Yes, we will,” she said, then turned to Baku with a grin and added, “Won’t we.”

Baku said nothing, just sat there shaking his head, wondering what this cunning woman was up to.

Undercover Agent - Episode Six

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Karla was sitting in the booth at Ted’s Tavern, thinking about the arrangement Zakim had dictated to her before he left only a few minutes earlier. She had two months to prove her value as his spy on the FBI. Meanwhile, a few miles away, Special Agent in Charge, Hanna Marx, entered an FBI headquarters conference room with a frown on her face and a growl in her voice. She demanded to know, “What’s the status with the Hammer woman?”

“She’s moved to a camp where one of Zakim’s men lives—a guy named Baku,” Agent James said after he stood and faced his boss. “She appears to be gaining Baku’s confidence. We’ve set up a drop site and Tabor’s keeping in touch with her. Now all we can do is wait and see what she learns.”

Remaining by the door, making no move to take a seat, Marx said, “I’m getting questions from headquarters about the wisdom of using a homeless woman as an informant. Especially one with a back ground like hers. The cost may be a problem, too. I need something to show, soon. Do what you can to hurry things along.

“That could be dangerous,” James said, uncomfortable with the direction Marx was taking.

“This isn’t the Girl Scouts she’s joined. Push her. Let’s see what she can do.” Marx turned and left as abruptly as she had entered, leaving James alone to contemplate the risks of stirring the pot too vigorously.

*          *         *

When Tabor checked the drop site a few days later there was no message from Karla, the third such event in that many days. Looking around to make sure he hadn’t been noticed by anyone, he returned to his car. Slumped low in his seat, he called James.

“What’s up?” James asked.

“No message again. Maybe she’s in trouble.”

“Maybe. Whaddya think we should do?”

“The only thing we can do. Wait and see what happens. I’m sure as hell not gonna march into the camp and look for her . . . hold on . . . a woman’s heading toward the barrel . . . it’s her. I’ll call you back.”

Tabor eased out of his car and glanced around to make sure no one else was in sight. He walked across the parking lot, then along the rail track and caught up with Karla.

“We gotta talk,” Tabor said as he came up behind her.

Karla spun around, her cane raised and ready to strike. “Captain!” She said. “What are you doing here? We can’t be seen together,” she added, glancing toward the woods where the camp was set up.

“There’s no one around. Come on. My car’s over there,” Tabor said, nodding toward the parking lot.

*          *         *

Ten minutes later they were sitting in Tabor’s unmarked car parked on a quiet side street a mile away.

“It’s been a week since we’ve heard from you. We were concerned,” Tabor said.

“I’m doin’ just fine. Don’t worry.”

“All right. Any progress on getting a line on Zakim?”

“I’ll let you know when I do.”

“What about Baku? You any closer to him?”

“I’m workin’ on it,” Karla said, her irritation at Tabor’s questions evident in the sharpness of her reply.

Sensing her growing discomfort, Tabor said, “Look, Karla. James is feeling pressure from Marx to show progress. The higher ups don’t like the fact that we’re paying out this much money, either. You gotta give us something—something to keep the wolves away.”

Karla took her hand off the door handle she was about to use to leave and turned to face Tabor. After a pause, she said, “I wasn’t gonna tell you this yet, but I met Zakim a couple of days ago.”

“What?” Tabor blurted out, “Whadaya mean you weren’t gonna tell me? Are you nuts? What the hell’s goin’ on?”

“Take it easy. I got it under control. I told him I ran a gang of punks—shoplifting, a little burglary, stuff like that. That I knew how to handle street kids. How I could help him. That I wanted to work for him. A line if bullshit, that’s all.”

“Oh. Is that all? How’d you get to him, anyway?”

Through Baku. I used his phone.”

“Jesus, Karla. You’re in way over your head. You’re playing with fire, and you’re gonna get burned if you don’t cut and run.”

“I can handle it. Like I said, don’t worry.”

Tabor sat staring through the windscreen for a while, then said, “What’d he say when you offered to work for him?”

“He’ll give me a try. Two months to prove myself.”

“How the hell you gonna do that?”

“I’ll go with Baku the next time he has to collect street kids. I’ll see what happens. I’ll figure out something.”

Tabor shook his head and said, “That won’t do it. He’s got guys like Baku to find and snatch homeless girls. You’ll have to do more that. You’re setting yourself for a bad fall.”

Karla was silent for a while, then, averting his gaze and looking out the front window, she said, “I also told him I was working with the Feds and that I could let him know about their operations. I’ll have to give him something.”

Tabor was stunned by what she said. “What? You are insane.” he yelled and slammed his fists against the steering wheel. “God damn it, Karla. This guy’s a ruthless, sadistic killer. He’ll crush you like a bug if you don’t give him some juicy FBI secrets. What were you thinking?”

Turning back to face Tabor, she said, “I was thinking I gotta do whatever it takes to get inside his organization—that’s what I was thinking. You know, like what you guys are paying me to do. I was also thinking we would be able to come up with something that would satisfy him but not compromise what you guys are doing.”

“That’s a tall order. You should have worked this out with us before your leaped into a hot frying pan.”

“Yeah? Well I didn’t, did I. Didn’t have that luxury. But now it’s done, so you better get a grip and start thinking about a plan. Right now, I’m going back to the camp, find Baku, and convince him to take me along on his next raid.”

Dumbfounded by Karla’s revelation, Tabor could think of nothing else to say as he watched her climb out of the car and head toward the river. Her cane clacked loudly as she disappeared into the deep shade of the tree-lined sidewalk.

*          *         *

Karla found Baku by the Willamette River where a path from the camp ended in a small, grassy clearing. She sat next on the ground to him without saying anything.

“What’s up?” he asked, continuing to stare at the water. After a long silence, he said, Zakim called. Said you’re working for us now. That I should show you what we do. That you gonna help with the girls.” After another long pause, he said, “What the fuck you up to?”

“Money, Baku. That’s what I’m up to. Money to live by. Same as you.”

“You think you can just push your way into my gang and do your share?”

“With your help, yeah, I think I can. And will.”

“What I do is serious. Sometimes things get nasty. Don’t always go easy. Sometimes me and my bros gotta get rough with them bitches. You up for that?”

“I killed a man, didn’t I? Have you? And my time in prison wasn’t a tea party. I wouldn’t still be alive after living most of my life on the streets if I hadn’t been able to kick ass when I needed to. Don’t you ever underestimate what I can do if I have to.”

Baku looked at her for a moment, then said, “All right. I hope you are what you say you are cause we got a job to do, starting tomorrow.”

“What kind of job?” Karla asked, wondering to herself if she really would be up to helping Baku and his pals kidnap innocent girls who would be forced into sexual slavery.

“The kind I always do. Snatching girls off the street. A delivery’s set for Friday night. We got three days to round up at least a dozen, more if we can.”

“Here in Portland?”

“Wherever we find them. From Vancouver to Salem. As fast as homeless and runaway kinds are coming here, won’t be no problem. It’s finding the best ones that’s hard—right age, healthy, decent looking, alone or in pairs.”

“What age?” Karla asked, afraid of what the answer might be.

“Young, but not too young. The people Zakim supplies likes ‘em to be between twelve and eighteen. Older than that, they mostly come from Europe and Africa. That ain’t our business. Ours is kids.”

“What do we do when we find them?” Karla asked, feeling herself sickened by the thought of what she was getting into.

“First, we spot ones who’d be good to take. Gotta remember where they are. That night, me, Frank, and Jamal, and now you, will make a drive-by snatch with the van. We gag and tie ‘em up. After we collect as many as we can, we take ‘em to a house, or some other building, where they’re kept till they get picked up. When they’re put in a shipping container or truck, our part’s done. We collect our money and say good night.”

Karla fought to keep her voice under control. “Where will we take them?”

“We’ll find out tomorrow night. It’s different just about every time. Zakim don’t take no chances.”

“What’s our plan for tomorrow?”

“You and me’ll scope out the inner east side and any Max stops we can work in. Frank and Jamal will hunt camps and other neighborhoods around the city. Tomorrow night we’ll make the snatches. Then the next two days, same thing, different locations. You better get a good night sleep cause there won’t be much chance for it the next couple days.” Baku got to his feet and started toward the camp. “Dinner time. You comin’? 

*          *         *

 A little after 3 a.m. that night, a lone woman with a cane made her way carefully across a weed-filled, dirt lot toward a rusty barrel. Once there, she knelt next to it and placed a Ziploc baggie in a hollowed-out space underneath. She stood, looked around, then returned to the wooded area that harbored one of the many makeshift camps that sheltered Portland’s homeless.

*          *         *

“She must have left this note late last night. It wasn’t there when I checked around seven,” Captain Tabor said to Agent James, who sat across the table.

“What does it say?” James asked after he put down his coffee.

Tabor looked around to make sure no one was within hearing distance, then read the note out loud. “Baku, two others, and me will kidnap girls tomorrow night and next two nights. They get taken away Friday night. Don’t know where they will be held. Maybe I can find out tomorrow and let you know. You have to rescue girls without suspicion on me.”

“Jesus, Tabor. You said she wouldn’t do anything crazy. You were sure as hell wrong about that. This is definitely crazy. How can we rescue a bunch of girls we don’t know where will be, how many there are, or who we’ll be up against? And if that weren’t bad, enough, it can’t look like we got a heads up from Karla. This woman’s out of control. If you don’t . . .”

“Hold on! Okay. You’re right. It’s a tough situation. But we gotta deal with it.”

At that moment, the waitress came over to their table and refilled their cups, then asked, “Have you decided what you want?’

After she took their orders and left, James said, “Okay. There’s a couple of possibilities we could consider.”

The two men sat talking and drinking coffee for the rest of the morning, ignoring the waitress’s gentle hints to vacate their spot as the lunch crowd started filling up the place.

*          *         *

Tuesday morning dawned to a cloudless sky and gentle breeze. The familiar fragrance of the Willamette spiced the morning air that brought life to the camp. The smell of Rosa’s fresh brew gave it a perfect edge.

“You ready?” Baku said at the entrance to Karla’s tent, just loud enough to be heard.

“Be right out,” Karla answered. “I’ll meet you at the fire pit. I need coffee.”

An hour later the two mismatched Zakim foot soldiers were on the MAX train heading south toward East Portland. They were going to comb the inner industrial area for likely targets. The permissive attitude of Portland’s civic leaders toward the homeless, coupled with a scarcity of affordable housing and increases in broken families, has opened the flood gates to an influx of people of all ages seeking better opportunities, or perhaps just a safe place to sleep. Included in this seemingly unending influx were lots of young girls and women—plenty of possibilities for the likes of Baku and his gang.

Forty minutes, two transfers, and a short walk landed Baku and Karla in a maze of narrow streets, littered sidewalks, an assortment of bridges and highway ramps, dimly lit underpasses, and a confusion of abandoned and newly constructed buildings. Some of he people living on the streets in this area were in camps, some in pairs or small groups, some were alone. Living conditions varied from camps like the one in North Portland where Baku and Karla were staying, others consisted of jerry-rigged structures of tarps, cardboard and scrap wood erected on sidewalks, empty lots, and along the sides of major roads. Some were nothing more than a sleeping bag or an odd assortment of worn and dirty blankets thrown down wherever there was room.

Walking every street, block by block, Baku spotted a dozen women and young girls who met his criteria for grabbing that night. Karla made a note about each one: what they looked like, their location, other people nearby, any information that could be used to make a clean snatch and safe getaway. When they returned to the Lloyd Center transfer point, they spent another hour traipsing around the area, where they identified several more candidates. Then back on the Max Yellow Line and then at the camp in time for Rosa’s stew and to share with their fellow campers the gallon of red wine they bought along the way.

*          *         *

Karla had just nodded off when Baku shook her shoulder and whispered in her ear, “Wake up. We gotta go.” She opened her eyes to see him standing near the glowing embers of Rosa’s fire slipping on his backpack.

She Grabbed her shoulder bag and cane, then said, “I’m ready.”

Baku looked around, then in a low voice said, “Jamal and Frank’s in the van. Parked on Lombard. Come on.”

Karla followed Baku as they went quietly past darkened tents and silent sleepers toward she knew not what, at the same time excited and scared.

Undercover Agent - Episode Five

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The night’s unrelenting rain left the homeless encampment’s fire pit soggy and its ground mired in mud, but it didn’t deter the two dozen-plus squatters from starting their day like any other. A guy named Ricardo got a fire going and Rosa made a pot of coffee. Some of the campers headed out to look for day work, to panhandle, or to go to one of the shelters where they could get a free breakfast. Others gathered around the fire and warmed or cooked whatever they’d scrounged the day before or found in the camp’s common larder.

Groggy from a sleepless night, Karla sat with the others, drinking coffee and eating one of the over-ripe oranges a neighborhood market donated earlier in the week. She noticed that Baku wasn’t anywhere to be seen and assumed he must still be asleep. She figured he would sleep late because of his heavy drinking the night before. She needed to sneak his phone back into his tent before he woke, but not until after she used it to call Zakim. The likelihood of Zakim taking a call were good if it came from Baku’s phone. But it was still early, so she wanted to wait a while before she tried.

It wasn’t only the rain that kept Karla awake most of the night—it was also thinking about what she would say to Zakim. Learning from Baku about Zakim’s trafficking in homeless girls made her even more determined to help take Zakim down. Forcing grown women into the sex trade was bad enough, but it was another thing altogether to be stealing young kids off the streets and ruining their lives. She had to do something. Something more than just telling Tabor and James. What could they do without proof? Nothing! As she saw it, her job was to get that proof. After all, she was being paid as an undercover agent. It was time to start earning her wages.

 

*          *          *

 

While Karla was drinking her coffee and thinking about the call to Zakim, Captain Tabor was sitting in his unmarked car on the far side of the food services company parking lot talking on his phone to Agent James.

“No message this morning. I’ll check again tonight,” Tabor said in response to James’s question.

“Think she’d do something stupid?” James asked.

“Like what?”

“Like lean on Baku too much. Or try to get close to Zakim. That’s what.”

“She seems to be doing okay with Baku. As far as Zakim goes, I don’t think she’d take that risk.”

“Oh yeah?” James said. “You wouldn’t have expected her to attack a mafia hit man with nothing but a cane, either.”

“That was different. She didn’t have a choice. He was gonna kill her.”

“I hope you’re right,” James replied. “Let me know when you get another message.”

After the phone went dead, Tabor sat for a few minutes, wondering why James was so concerned about such an unlikely event as Karla hooking up with Zakim. Shrugging, he pulled out of the lot and headed back to precinct headquarters.

 

*          *          *

 

Meanwhile, in a windowless room at the rear of the J & L Transport truck depot in a rundown neighborhood on the southeastern edge of Portland, Zakim Olahyinka was frowning at his phone. He’d punched in Baku’s number, but there was no answer. “Where‘s that little son-of-a-bitch at? He ain’t answering.” He ended the call and looked at the man sitting across the table from him, Jack Severs, his guy in charge of getting the girls to where they were needed. “After you put Jamal and Frank to work, go see what’s up with Baku. We gotta have two more girls tonight to make up for the two from Seattle who got sick. They ain’t doin’ so good.”

“The truck’s gotta leave at midnight if we’re gonna make the noon transfer in Redding tomorrow,” Jack replied.

“I know that,” Zakim said angrily. “That’s why I want all three of them scouts out there today. Stay on top of this, Jack. I don’t want this order messed up. There’s a lot riding on it.”

As soon as Jack left, Zakim dialed another number. “We might have a problem with tonight’s delivery,” he stated without apology. He listened for a few moments, then said, “Yeah, I’ll let you know,” then ended the call.

 

*          *          *

 

While pouring another cup of coffee back at the homeless camp, Karla was surprised when Baku’s phone started buzzing. She quickly stepped away from the other campers and took the phone out of her pocket. The number on the screen was the same one she’d seen when she checked his calls the day before—Zakim’s. “Damn,” she mumbled. “Now what?” She didn’t answer the call and put the phone back in her pocket.

“Don't do anything stupid,” she said to herself as she headed toward the drop site. “I better talk to Tabor.” But before she got to the edge of the woods, she decided to check on Baku first, to see if he was still asleep. She back-tracked to his tent, noting there was no one around to see her. Carefully moving the flaps aside and peeping inside, she saw he was still sleeping. I’ve got time to figure this out, she thought. I’ll slip the phone back in the tent, then leave a message at the drop site for Tabor. He’ll help me decide what to do about Zakim.

She took the phone out of her pocket and pulled the flaps further apart. But when she started to put the phone inside, it buzzed again. Without thinking, she jumped up, still holding the phone, and moved far enough away not to wake Baku. She looked at the number displayed in the window—Zakim again. But against her better judgement, she answered it, as if she had been both compelled and waiting for this opportunity.

“Yes?” she said in a flat voice.

“Who is this?” a deep voice said after a slight delay.

“Hello, Zakim,” Karla answered.

“Who are you?” Where’s Baku?”

“Baku’s okay. Right now, he’s asleep. I’m a friend of his. My name’s Sue.

“What the hell’s goin’ on? What are you doin’ with his phone?”

Then, as if an SOS had been broadcast, an idea that had been bouncing around in her subconscious mind suddenly surfaced. “I’ve got something to offer you that will help your business. But . . . it’ll cost you.”

From the ensuing silence, Karla sensed the confusion that Zakim must have been feeling. An unknown woman on the other end of one of his scout’s phone was making an offer that made no sense. Someone who apparently knew what he was into. “Whoever you are, bitch, you’re as good as dead if you ain’t on the up and up.”

“Meet me at Ted’s Tavern on Lombard at noon. Then you can judge for yourself.” She cut off the call, went over to Baku’s tent and yelled, “Hey, Sleeping Beauty. Time to rise and shine.” Before Baku fully woke, she tossed the phone in without him noticing, then rose to her feet and walked off toward the fire pit. Her cane kicked up wet debris as she went. “There’s still some coffee left,” she yelled over her shoulder. “You better hurry ‘cause it won’t last forever.”

 

*          *          *

 

At a quarter to twelve, Karla was sitting alone in one of the booths across the room from where half a dozen patrons were scattered along the bar. A Grateful Dead song drowned out what little conversation there was, and a strong odor of stale beer permeated the thick air. A little after noon, when Karla was on her second cup of coffee, two men she’d not seen before entered. They stood near the door peering around the room. The tall, lanky one—black like ebony, bald, and with a jagged scar down one cheek—halted his search when he saw Karla. After she nodded, he motioned his companion, a burly, bearded white guy, to stay by the door. He looked around the room once more, then walked over to her table and slid onto the seat across from her.

His eyes, the color of dark night, bored into hers. “This better be good . . . Sue,” he said coolly. There was an unmistakable undercurrent of threat in is calmness. “It would be a shame if you had to take a ride with my friend over there. He hates women. Something about what his mother did to him. Something he never got over.”

Assuming it was him, she said, “Zakim, you don’t have to threaten me. You’ll like what I have to say.” Her eyes fixed on his, unwavering, unblinking. She kept her trembling hands under the table.

Zakim held her gaze for a few seconds, glanced down at his over-sized hands folded on the table in front of him, then sat back against the vinyl upholstery. After a brief silence he leaned forward again, placed his hands palms down on the scarred surface, looked her in the eyes and said, “All right, Sue. What you got to say that’s so important?”

“The FBI’s out to get you and wants me to help them do it. They’re paying me to go undercover, get close to your operation, to learn about your business.

Zakim’s eyes widened, but he held her gaze. After a few seconds, he said, “You got a reason I shouldn’t kill you?”

“I want to work for you,” Karla said without hesitation. “They’re forcing me to do this because of my record. And they’re paying me, but it’s next to nothing. For ten times what they’re giving me, I’ll be your eyes and ears—half a million over two years—twenty thousand a month into a Swiss account.”

“You’re either totally crazy or else desperate for money to come to me with this bullshit. But I got to admit, you got guts.” He turned toward the man still near the door and signaled him over to the booth. When he arrived, Zakim said, “Benny, take this dumb bitch for a ride and make it one way.”

“Wait!” Karla said. “I go missing, they’ll be on you like snakes on a rat. Hear me out.”

Zakim motioned his thug to back away, then said. “You got two minutes.”

“I can let you know their plans, what they know about you, if they’re gonna make a move on you. I’ll protect you by keeping you informed.”

“How do I know you won’t play both sides? That you wouldn’t turn me in the first chance you get?”

“I figure you got a long reach. If I double cross you, I’d be dead before I knew it. Like I said, I need money. Living on the streets doesn’t provide opportunities to build much of a nest egg.”

Zakim sent Benny back to the front door and waved the bartender to the table. “You got anything to eat here?” he asked her.

“Burgers and fries,” she replied.

“You want something?” he asked Karla.

“That sounds good,” she said.

“Make it two. And two IPAs,” he told the bartender, then turned back to Karla. “I’ll kill your ass if you screw up my business. And if I can’t, someone else will. If you do hook up with me, there’d be no way out. Once you’re in, you’re in to stay. You good with that?”

“No! I’m not good with that. The FBI’s giving me a two-year deal. If I play their game, I’ll get my record cleared and 50 K. I’ll give you the same time. Then take the half million and disappear—Mexico or Costa Rica. Someplace warm and far away. That’s all I want.”

Before Zakim could answer, the bartender sat the beers on the table without saying anything, then went back to the bar.

Zakim took a long pull, then said, “Are those FBI guys watching you? Do they know you’re here right now?”

“No. I’m sure they aren’t following me. I’ve been checking. We communicate by messages at a drop site.”

“Where’s that?”

“Near the camp where I’m staying. The one Baku’s at.

“You got a phone?”

“No.”

Zakim took another drink, then asked, “How you gonna let me know if something’s goin’ down? What they’re up to?”

Karla was silent for a while, then said, “I don’t want a phone. They leave a trail. I’ll go through Baku. Or else I’ll use his phone. You’d have to tell him to let me.”

The burgers arrived and the two of them ate in silence, as if they were digesting the possible consequences of their conversation as much as they were the greasy meat and oily fries.

After Zakim pushed aside his half-eaten burger and wiped his mouth, he said, “All right. I’m gonna give you a month to prove your value. If you show you’re worth it, we’ll go ahead with the deal. If not, you’ll be taking that ride with Benny.”

Karla shook her head and said, “That’s too short a time. I need more to get their confidence. To learn about how they operate, what they got planned. At least three months.”

“Two,” Zakim replied with finality. Then, without saying anything else, he threw some bills on the table, slid out of the booth and left through the front door. Benny, close behind his boss, glanced briefly at Karla as the door swung shut, returning the room to its cheerless gloom.

  

Undercover Agent - Episode Four

The morning after Karla left a message at the rusty barrel drop site, Captain Tabor and agent James were sitting across from each other in an out-of-the-way North Portland café. Tabor glanced at the note lying on the table between them. “Does that name Zakim ring a bell? Or Baku?”

“Zakim does. Baku doesn’t,” James said after he sat his coffee cup down and moved his egg yolk-smeared plate aside.

“Zakim Olahyinka,” James said. “A big guy, Nigerian. Got legal residency as a kid through Temporary Protected Status—religious persecution . . . or whatever. He came to Portland from LA five years ago, apparently to open new territory for a Nigerian trafficking gang. We watched him for a while but couldn’t get anything on him. Had to pull surveillance at the beginning of this year. Word on the street is, among other things, he runs prostitutes here and in Seattle—including underage ones. If he does, he’s doing it under our radar. As for the strip club Karla mentioned in that note, it’s a known hooker hangout, but we’ve never gotten solid proof of actual buys. Those 82nd Street bartenders and pimps must have sixth sense. They spot our undercover vice guys every time they go near it.”

“Yeah. Our vice squad knows that place,” Tabor said. “But they’ve never nailed anybody there either. Karla says this guy Baku called himself a scout and that Zakim paid him for a job. What do you think that’s about?”

At that moment, their waitress approached with a coffee pot in one hand and a check in the other. “Refills?” She laid the check on the table and then filled the cups the two men pushed closer to her.

“Thanks,” James said, smiling at the waitress. Picking up the check, he looked at Tabor and said, “I’ll get this. The FBI’s got a bigger budget than Portland P. D. does.”

Ignoring James’s remark, Tabor again asked, “Any ideas about what Baku might be doing for Zakim?”

“Could be lots of things.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know,” James said. “Maybe collecting payoffs, running dope, selling dope, checking up on his girls—guys like Zakim are into all kinds of things. Sometimes they use runners like this Baku dude for odd jobs, stuff they don’t want to waste time doing themselves or give to regular gang members. It’s like pick-up work, once-in-a-while jobs.”

Tabor took a swig of coffee, then asked, “What should we tell Karla?”

“I’d tell her to go slow, to keep an eye on Baku, but not so close he gets suspicious. Under no circumstances should she try to get close to Zakim. He’s a nasty bastard. If he suspected something wasn’t on the up-and-up, he wouldn’t hesitate to deal with her in the worst way.”

“Right. I’ll leave a message for her this morning.”

 

*          *          *

 

A few days later at one of her best panhandling spots, Karla called it a day in the middle of the afternoon after an elegantly dressed, elderly woman put a twenty-dollar-bill into the paper cup sitting next to Karla’s neatly printed cardboard sign. On her way back to the camp, she checked the drop site but waited until she was in her tent to read Tabor’s note. She understood the warning about Zakim, although she’d had no intention to visit him anyway—at least not until she knew more about who he was and Baku’s relationship to him. But she still bristled at the thought of Tabor, or anyone for that matter, telling her what to do—or how. This was her gig. She would play it as she saw fit. Maybe that’s why she didn’t check the drop site every day. As far as Baku was concerned, she believed she was the best judge of how to manage him. With that thought in mind, she checked to see if Baku was in his tent. When she found that he wasn’t there, she went to the fire pit. He wasn’t there, either. But Gretchen was, talking with Rosa.

“Any idea where Baku is?” Karla asked the two women.

“You still acting like you’re his mother?” Gretchen snapped.

“He hasn’t been around all day,” Rosa said in a friendlier manner.

“Thanks,” Karla said, ignoring Gretchen’s comment, then walked off toward the railroad spur leading to Lombard. She stopped at the edge of the woods and surveyed the open space that extended all the way to the food services company. There was no sign of Baku or anyone else approaching. She went back to the camp and took the path to the river’s edge. Again, no sign of Baku. Confident that he was nowhere near, she beelined back to his shelter, avoiding the fire pit and taking care no one saw her.

Outside Baku’s tent, she once more made sure there was no one around, then unzipped the flaps and ducked in. She quickly found the phone she had seen earlier, put it in her pocket, and left, leaving everything else as she had found it.

Back in her own tent, Karla checked Baku’s calls, able to do so only because of Tabor’s instructions on how to use the mobile phone hidden under the drop site barrel. There were several recent calls, incoming and outgoing, all for the same number, which was one of the three in his contact list. It was the one identified with the letter Z; the other two were F and J. She wrote all of them down on a scrap of paper, including Baku’s number. She put the phone back in her pocket, hid the paper with the numbers under her bedding, grabbed the unopened bottle of Jim Beam, and went back outside.

On her way to Baku’s tent to return the phone, Karla heard scrunching footfall sounds behind her on the littered path. She spun around to see who it was. It was Gretchen, her spiky, orange hair glimmering like a strobe light in the bright sunshine streaming through the tree tops.

“What are you doing in this part of the camp?” Gretchen barked in a voice louder than necessary as she came close enough to Karla to be threatening.

Karla planted her feet further apart, slowly raised the hand holding the bottle of whisky, and said, “I’m gonna leave this for Baku. You gotta problem with that?”

Gretchen glanced at the cane Karla had lifted off the ground a couple of inches, took a step back, and said, “All right. Go ahead. I’m watching the camp today, just doing my job. That’s all.” Without further comment, she turned and headed back toward the fire pit, leaving Karla to continue with her task unobserved.

 

*         *         *

 

Karla woke from a nap as the sun was setting and joined some of the other squatters who were already at the fire pit for the community supper—fish stew from a salmon one of the Vietnamese guys caught off Kelly Point. An hour later, and halfway through the meal, Baku appeared out of nowhere, approached the circle, and yelled, “Hey, I’m back.”

“Welcome home, Bro,” someone said.

“Where you been?” someone else asked.

“Working,” Baku said, then set a Fred Myer plastic shopping bag on the ground and took out two jugs of red wine. “This is on me.”

Between Rosa’s stew, Gretchen’s dope, and Baku’s wine, the meal turned into a party celebrating another profitable job that allowed Baku to not only provide booze, but also contribute generously to the camp’s food fund.

People started drifting back to their shelters around eleven o’clock, happy, high, and tired. By midnight, Baku and Karla were the only ones left, sitting next to each other in front of smoldering embers of Rosa’s cooking fire.

“I’m glad you had a couple of good days. And made some money,” Karla said. “And I’m happy to see you back here alive. I was worried, especially since you didn’t say anything about leaving.”

“Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself. What I do’s none of your business, anyway.”

“I’m not being nosey. It’s just that after you were ripped off at that strip club I worry. I worry about the company you’re keeping, too.”

“What are you talking about? You’re not my mother. Keep outta my life.”

“Okay, Okay. Relax. No problem.” After a prolonged silence, during which neither one of them made a move to leave, Karla said, “I could use some cash. Is there anything I could for your buddy, Zakim?”

“Zakim? How do you know about him?” Baku responded with alarm in his voice.

“You mentioned his name at the bar the other night, before you disappeared. I figure he’s your employer. I’d like to get some work from him if I can.”

“You just a dumb, crazy-ass old woman.? You don’t even know who he is, or what he does. There’re ain’t nothin’ you could do for him. Best you stay away from Zakim . . . and what I do for him ain’t none of your business. How many times do I gotta tell you to stay outta my life?”

“Baku . . . I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get into something I shouldn’t have. How bout we forget the whole thing? Instead, let’s sample the present I got for you. It’s by the entrance to your tent. Go get it and bring it back here for a nightcap. Go on.”

“What present?” Baku asked, puzzled by Karla’s sudden change of direction.

“Just something to express my thanks for you getting me into this camp. Go get it. Hurry. I’m dying to see how good it is.”

Baku returned a few minutes later, holding the black-label Jim Beam out to Karla. “Here—open it.”

“This is supposed to be pretty good stuff. And I know you like good whisky. It’s hundred proof, twelve years old. Cost me three days panhandling. But worth every penny for what you did for me . . .. Thank you, Baku. You’re a good friend, I’ll never forget that.”

An hour later, with half of the whisky gone, most of it drunk by Baku, Karla was ready to restart her interrogation. But when she started to ask him about his work for Zakim, Baku leaned forward, intending to pick up the bottle sitting on the ground next to the stump he was on, and fell forward. He landed hard in the dirt.

“You okay?” Karla asked as she knelt next to him.

Baku didn’t reply as she helped him sit up. He was seriously drunk. After she managed to get him into a sitting position with his back against the stump and his legs stretched out in front of him, he said, “Gimme that bottle.”

“You’ve had enough. Drink this,” Karla said, and handed him the half-full cup of water she’d been drinking from along with her sips of whisky.

Baku slapped the cup away and said, “Gimme that bottle,” slurring his words and stretching toward the Jim Beam just beyond his reach.

Karla hesitated a moment, then picked up the bottle, but held it in her lap. Baku stared at it for a second, then stuck out his hand, as if about to receive a gift. Looking directly into his heavily lidded eyes, she said, “Tell me about Zakim. What do you do for him?”

“Wha . . . what?” Baku stammered, a look of confusion spreading across his face.

“I need money, Baku,” Karla said with a level of firmness he couldn’t ignore, even in his near-stupor state. “I gotta have an operation and need to pay a big part of the cost. No way I can raise enough by begging on corners or with the shop-lifting gang of street kids I run. I wanna work for Zakim, like you do.”

Baku lunged for the bottle, but Karla pulled it back and gently deflected his hand. “Gimme that,” he blurted out again.

“Tell me about Zakim,” Karla replied, then moved the bottle a little closer to Baku’s outstretched hand.

Baku’s eyes darted around the area, as if checking to see if there was anyone else nearby. “What do you mean running shoplifting kids?” he asked.

“How’d you think I get money to spend on high-end booze like this? It ain’t from panhandling. She held the bottle in front of his face, then pulled it back down to her lap. “Tell me about Zakim!”

 Karla’s jarring demand, and learning about her claimed gang of thieves, was enough to break through Baku’s resistance. “He’s my boss.”

“What do you do for him?”

“Jobs.”

“Come on, Baku. You can trust me.” Karla handed him the bottle and he took a mouthful. He started to take another, but Karla grabbed it away, then asked, “What kind of jobs?”

He looked into her eyes for a second, then mumbled, “I find girls for him.”

 “Oh my god,” Karla said as she rose to her feet and moved a few paces away. She suddenly turned and said, “Are you telling me that you find young girls who Zakim kidnaps?” The look on her face expressed the horror she felt at what Baku had told her. “How could you do something like that? “What happens to the girls?”

“I don’t know—ain’t none of my business. They’re homeless kids, nobody cares about ‘em.”

“Don’t you realize what that does to them? That their lives are destroyed?”

“Don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that. Ain’t none of my business. Anyway, he sells most of ‘em to somebody else.” His eyes were losing focus.

“How much does he pay you?” she asked, stepping closer and speaking louder.

“I get a hundred each,” he managed to say, looking up at her.

“Is that what you were doing in Seattle?”

“Yeah. I found eleven. There’s even more homeless kids up there than here.” Baku leaned forward and stared at the empty bottle lying in the dirt. “I gotta sleep,” he said after a moment, then tried to stand. Karla grabbed his arm when he started to fall to one side.

“Come on. I’ll help you to your tent,” she said as she led him away from the fire pit.

After Karla got Baku through the flaps and on top of his sleeping bag, she felt around in the dark until she located his phone. She slipped it into her pocket and silently went back outside, already thinking about what she would say to Zakim when she called him the next morning.

 

Undercover Agent - Episode Three

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It was late afternoon when Bako and Karla reached the North Portland homeless camp where Bako lived. The first thing Bako did was to introduce Karla, whom he knew only as Sue, to the half-dozen inhabitants gathered around the central fire pit, talking about their day’s successes—and failures. His sponsorship of Karla as a new member of the camp, and vouching for her character, would be critical for her acceptance into their community. As it turned out, his standing as a trusted member of the group carried enough weight to win her a place.

A little later, after she had pitched her tent and stowed her stuff, she was back at the fire sharing stories of her life on the streets and learning what she could about her fellow campers. It didn’t hurt that she’d brought along the rest of the half-gallon of wine. It was left over from what she had bought earlier for Bako. She was using it now to help secure her place in this community of modern gypsies.

When Karla woke the next morning, her first thought was that she had to let Captain Tabor and Darrel James know about her new location. Since it would be out of the question for her to travel ten miles to the Hollywood post office annex every day, she also had to set up a new drop site. She told Bako and a few of the others that she was heading out for a day of scrounging and also wanted to check out the area. Bako told her that Zipper, one of the squatters, would hang out all day to keep an eye on everybody’s stuff so she didn’t have to worry about her belongings being ripped off.

Heading east along a rail spur toward North Lombard Street, she noticed a stack of moldy concrete pipes next to the tracks, not far from a sprawling food services company. She spotted a rusted barrel at one end of the stack and thought it might make a good drop. It was overflowing with old rubbish and scrunched up against one of the pipes. It was easily accessible from the company’s parking lot but not visible from the street. When she checked it out, she discovered a hollow spot underneath the bottom rim and knew it would be a place messages could be safely left. She made a mental note of the barrel’s exact location and went on.

She caught a bus near where Lombard branched off to North Columbia Blvd. and got to Hollywood an hour later, in time for a free lunch at the senior center. There was no message from Tabor or James—but she left one for them.

 

*         *         *

 

Karla was back in North Portland by midafternoon and spent the rest of the day walking the area’s main streets, commercial centers, and neighborhoods, noting landmarks, public buildings and businesses. That was knowledge that any homeless person needed to survive without a safe home to return to after a day out in the world. As she was learning about her unfamiliar environment, she couldn’t help but wonder where the crime families and gangs hung out. If she was going to fulfill her bargain with the FBI, she would have to find answers to that question.

She got back to the camp a little before dark and found most of the campers were already congregating around the fire. A few were helping with a community pot of stew, to which quite a few people had contributed. Karla got thumbs up and mumbled thanks when she handed to the young Hispanic woman who seemed to be in charge of cooking a bag of over-ripe vegetables she had purchased from the sale rack at a nearby market When she took a seat on one of the stumps circling the fire pit, she saw that Bako wasn’t anywhere to be seen. After a few minutes, a girl named Gretchen sat down next to her and lit a fat joint.

When Gretchen offered her a hit, Karla said, “No thanks, I’ll pass for now.” Gretchen nodded, let out a long-held breath, then passed the smoldering joint to a guy sitting on her other side.

“Have you seen Bako today?” Kala asked Gretchen a little later.

“He left this morning. Said he wouldn’t be back until late.”

“What’s he up to?” Karla asked.

Gretchen gave Karla a blank stare, then said, “What’s it to you? You a cop or something?”

“Hey—no big deal. I just got him a fifth of Jim Beam. My thanks for him getting me into this place. I just wanna give it to him, that’s all.”

Apparently satisfied with Karla’s answer, Gretchen said, “He said he had a job today. Knowing him, he’ll be in a mood to celebrate when he gets back. I’m sure he’ll appreciate your gift.”

“I’ll wait up for him, then,” Karla replied.

“Whatever,” Gretchen said, then stood and walked off toward a little patch of woods where a latrine had been dug.

*         *         *

 

Around midnight, Karla was about to leave the fire pit where she had been sitting alone and go to her tent. Before she could move, she heard scuffling along the trail from the railroad spur. A moment later Bako appeared at the edge of flickering light from the dying fire. Karla saw that he was unsteady on his feet. When he stopped abruptly he swayed back and forth for a few seconds before dropping down onto one of the stumps, which barely stayed upright.

“Bako! Are you okay?” Karla asked as she got to her feet and went over to where he sat hunched over, his elbows resting on his knees, staring at the glowing coals and moaning quietly.

He raised his head and looked at the person standing in front of him. After a few seconds, he focused on her face, and asked, “Sue? Is that you?”

 She smelled whisky on his breath. Even in the low light she could see from his slack look and glazed eyes that he was really drunk.

“You’ve got to get to bed. Come on,” she said in a firm voice. He didn’t argue, so she helped him stand. Together they clumsily started toward his tent. She supported herself with her cane in one hand and half-dragged-half-pushed him with her other hand tightly gripping his heavily tattooed arm.

The next morning Karla was on her second cup of coffee when she spotted Bako crawling out of his tent, blinking his eyes at the bright sunlight. She grabbed a cup off the makeshift table next to the fire pit and filled it from a pot sitting at the edge of the glowing coals. When she sat down across from where he sat on the ground in the shade of a big oak, she said, “Here, try this.”

Bako reached out with a shaky hand and took the offering without comment, He took a drink

“You don’t look so good,” Karla said. “How do you feel?”

Before Bako could answer, he leaned to the side and threw up, coughing and gagging between bouts of violent retching.

“You must have really hung on a good one,” Karla said, then got to her feet and headed back to the fire pit. A few seconds later, she returned with a plastic bottle full of water. “Drink this. Then you need to sleep it off,” she said, thrusting the bottle in front of him. “You’ll feel better later.”

With some effort, Bako unscrewed the lid and downed half of its contents. After he drank the rest, Karla helped him up, guided him to his tent, and pulled the flap aside as he crawled in. “I’ll see you later,” she said, knowing full well that he either didn’t hear her, or, if he did, didn’t care.

After Bako fell asleep, and after another cup of coffee and a couple of day-old doughnuts, Karla headed toward the railroad spur with her pack and cane. When she got to the food services company parking lot she made sure no one was around then went over to the barrel she had told Tabor and James about. There was a folded-up square of paper and a burner cell phone sealed inside a small baggie in the hole. She glanced around and saw there were no people in sight, then unfolded the paper and read it.

“This drop site is OK. We’ll check every night. Keep this phone here for an emergency. Destroy this note.”

Karla crumpled up the note and put it in her pocket, then slipped the baggie-protected phone back into the space under the barrel. So, the game is on, she thought, as she walked toward Lombard and another day of scoping out her new neighborhood.

 

*         *         *

 

When Bako woke and peered out of the tent’s entrance, the sun was approaching the horizon, at least the horizon as defined by the top ridge of the western hills behind downtown Portland. The orb’s golden reflection shimmered on the rippling surface of the Willamette River, only twenty yards from the edge of the camp and flowing north toward the Columbia. The first thing that came to his mind was the wad of cash he’d been paid last night and was now safe in his pocket. “Gotta add it to my stash,” he mumbled.

Ignoring his throbbing headache, he reached into his pocket for his money. “What the hell? Where is it?” he said to himself, as if he were under interrogation. Then it came back to him with clarity greater than expected for someone who’d been as drunk as he had been the night before. The $600 from Zakim; meeting up with two other scouts at the Bottom’s Up strip club on 82nd Avenue; unending rounds of drinks; stories and laughing; a young girl. Then what? Those bastards must have stolen my money. Or was it her? he wondered to himself.

With the panic of someone who realizes how much they’d screwed up, he frantically searched his other pockets, then looked around the cluttered tent. As he was tossing his dirty clothes from one spot to another, the flap opened, and a voice asked, “Hey, Bako, you awake yet? It’s time for dinner.”

“They stole my money!” he cried, before he fully realized what he was saying.

He looked up to see Karla staring at him. “Bako. Take it easy. Who stole your money? What money?” Then she noticed a cell phone half-hidden by the edge of his sleeping bag.

He saw where she was looking and quickly pushed the phone out of sight.

Karla didn’t mention what she had seen. Instead, she  said, “Come on. Let’s get you something to eat, then I’ll help you find your money.”

An hour later, Karla and Bako were sitting in a red-vinyl upholstered booth in Ted’s Tavern on Lombard, the last of their soggy, ketchup-covered French fries too cold to eat. “Two more beers,” Karla told the waitress as she cleared the away their plates.

“You gotta pay for this. I don’t have any money,” Bako said, when the beers were set in front of them.

“No problem,” Karla replied. Then, after a long silence, “What happened last night? Who do you think ripped you off?”

Bako took a drink of his beer. After he set the glass back on the table, he said, “I’m not sure. But it was either the two guys I was drinking with, or the little hooker I ended up with later—just before I left that place. It’s kinda hazy. I was pretty much out of it by then.”

“How much are we talking about?” Kala asked, trying to sound concerned rather than as if she were digging for information.

Bako took another pull on his beer. “A lot. I got paid for a job.”

“Did they get all of it?”

“A hundred went on a tab when we got to the club. Each of us chipped in that much for food and drinks, and the cover charge, too.”

“What did that leave you?” Karla asked, once again trying to get a handle on the amount.

“After a hundred for the whore, I still should have had $400. That sweet little girl must have taken it out of my pocket when I was using the toilet.”

‘How’d you get back to the camp?”

“Zakim gave me a ride. He saw me walking up 82ndwhen he drove by.”

“Zakim? Who’s he?”

Bako stared at Kala for a few seconds, as if deciding what to say, then said, “Nobody special. Just someone I know.”

“Lucky for you he came along at the right time. It would have been a long walk.”

“Yeah, it would’a been.”

Karla took a sip of her beer, then said,” You wanna go to the club and see what we can find out? I’ll go with you.”

“Wouldn’t do no good. Those two guys won’t be there. And trying to chase down the hooker could be dangerous. Pimps don’t take kindly to that kind of thing.”

“Couldn’t you complain to the club—tell them what happened?” Karla asked, still trying to get closer to Bako’s mysterious money source.

“That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. The club got their $300, that’s all they care about. The last thing they’d want is someone poking their noses into what they don’t control. Don’t even think about going there.”

Karla nodded acceptance of what he said, then asked, “How about Zakim? Can he tell you how to find those two guys? What did you call em before? Scouts?”

Baku swallowed the last of his beer and slammed the glass onto the table. “Forget about that name. Don’t ever bring it up again. And stay out of my business.” He then slid off the bench and hurried toward the front door, leaving Karla more determined than ever to find out what he was up to and who Zakim was. She ripped a page from a little notebook, scribbled a short message, left a twenty for the bill, and headed to the drop site.

To be continued . . .

Undercover Agent - Episode Two

Karla and Detective Tabor checked in at the Portland FBI office lobby desk at two o’clock on the dot and were immediately ushered to the seventh floor. “She’ll be right in. Coffee?” the agent who had led them to the simply furnished, windowless meeting room asked. The agent was black, goateed, and sported dreadlocks down to his broad shoulders.

“Sure,” Karla said.

“Help yourself,” he said, nodding at the sideboard where a pump pot stood next to a plate of chocolate-chip cookies. He extended his hand toward Karla. “I’m Darrel James. The chief wanted me to meet you.” Then he shook hands with Tabor and said, “I heard about your North Portland meth lab bust.”

“Yeah, we were lucky,” Tabor replied.

Before Tabor could say more, the door opened and a tall, middle-aged woman in a brown pantsuit entered. She was a couple of inches taller than Karla’s five-ten and projected an aura of authority.  She glanced at Tabor, and in a tone of voice indicating respect for a fellow law enforcement professional, she said, “Detective . . .” After shaking Tabor’s hand, she turned to Karla and said, “Miss Hammer, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for taking time for this visit. You’ve done a great service to the agency, and to the country. The man you attacked was a wanted killer, responsible for scores of deaths. You’re a real-life heroine. We don’t get to meet many of those.”

“I didn’t have much choice. He was gonna kill me,” Karla said, then stepped over to the sidebar and filled a mug with coffee. “Is he still alive?”

The others followed suit and then sat down at the table. Karla and Tabor were on one side, James and the chief across from them. “I’m Hanna Marx, Special Agent in Charge of this office,” the chief said. “Detective Tabor filled us in on what you did. That was pretty gutsy. To answer your question, yes, he’s still alive, but in a coma. You must have hit him pretty hard.”

“Like I said, he was gonna shoot me. It was him or me.” After a pause, she continued, “There’s a reward, right?”

“Twenty-five thousand,” Marx said. “You earned it. It’s all yours. How do you want it?”

“Whaddya mean, ’How do I want it?’ A check or money order, or cash, whatever you guys do here.”

“I mean, do you want it all in one payment or paid in installments over a period of time? There will be some paperwork, too,” Marx replied.

Tabor saw that Karla was becoming anxious with how the conversation was going. He laid his hand on her arm and said, “Karla, the money is yours. Chief Marx will make sure you get it.”

“That’s right, “Marx said. “You’ll get the money. But there’s something else I’d like to discuss with you.”

“About a job? Detective Tabor said something about that.”

“That’s right. A job.”

“What kinda job?” Karla asked.

“Undercover agent,” Marx replied, getting right to the point.

“What? What are you talking about? Is this some kinda trick to cheat me out of the reward?”

“Let’s hear what Special Agent Marx has to say,” Tabor told Karla, wanting to calm her growing anxiety.

“It has nothing to do with the reward,” Marx interrupted. “We’d hire you as a consultant and pay a good fee. We need someone with street smarts to help us learn more about Portland’s human trafficking gangs. Someone who would never be suspected of working with law enforcement. Someone like you.”

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t know anything about that stuff. I’m just a homeless woman trying to survive from one day to the next. I just want my reward money.”

Ignoring Karla’s outburst, Marx opened the folder lying in front of her and began leafing through the pages. “From what I see here, you should be able to get close to people running those operations. Two years in state prison for assault. No known source of income other than a paltry disability payment. Let’s see . . . broken leg and hip from when you were hit by a city bus. That explains the cane. Speaking of which, you used it pretty effectively on Baldoni yesterday. Where’d you pick up that talent? By the way, wouldn’t that be classified as a weapon now that you’ve used it in an assault, or should I say, another assault? Could be a problem for an ex-con. Especially one who’s missed meeting with your parole officer,” Marx said, looking at one of the pages from Hanna’s file.

“Listen lady. A single woman doesn’t last on the streets as long as I have without knowing how to defend herself, at least if she doesn’t have a pimp. Which I don’t—never have, never will. That’s not my thing. And another thing—it wasn’t assault, it was self-defense. So, don’t try to frame me for something that’s not true. And don’t threaten me with missed meetings from years ago that no one gives a shit about.”

“Relax, Karla. We wouldn’t do anything like that,” Marx said, putting the sheet of paper back in the file and sliding the platter of cookies in Karla’s direction. “So how do you get by, living on the streets? If you don’t mind me asking,” she continued, as if wanting to quickly change the subject.

“What is this, a social studies class? I just want to get my reward money and get the fuck outta here.” Karla barked, her impatience escalating.

“Okay, okay. Take it easy. If that’s what you want, no problem,” Marx replied as she stood, gathered up the folder and other documents she brought in, and prepared to leave. “Just give your bank account number and routing number to Agent James and we’ll get that done tomorrow.”

“Wait a minute. I don’t have a bank account. Can’t you just gimme the cash?” Karla asked as Marx approached the door.

For a moment no one said anything. Then Special Agent in Charge Hanna Marx slowly took her hand off the handle of the door she had been about to open, turned back to Karla and said, “It’s not quite that simple, Miss Hammer.”

Three hours later, Tabor and Karla were headed south on 82nd Avenue on their way back to Northeast Portland. Tabor suddenly pulled into the parking lot of a shabby strip mall, parked in an empty spot, and said, “they’ve got great burritos here,” pointing at a storefront with a bright red neon sign proclaiming, ‘Open.’ “I’m starving,” he said. “How about you?”

Seated at a Formica table, with burritos, large Cokes, and an assortment of salsas, Tabor said, “Okay. How do you wanna do this? We gotta have a system. A way to communicate, for Agent James or me to know if you need to meet, or if you’re in trouble.”

“You’re asking me? You’re the cop,” Karla replied, dipping her burrito into a plastic container of salsa verde. “You got me into this mess, so you better damn-well make sure I survive to collect my money in two years.”

“Hey. It’s up to you, too. Don’t lay it all on me. You agreed to the deal. You’ll come out of it with a nice bankroll and a clean record. How else would you ever get your prison time deleted from you file?”

“Yeah, sure. But only if I live. Sounds like these guys they’re after are major killers. They’ll turn me into dogfood if they find out I’m working for the Feds.”

“That’s why we gotta play it safe,” Tabor replied. “A cell phone is out—a homeless woman couldn’t afford one. And it would be a risk, anyway. If someone got suspicious and checked it, and discovered contacts with us, you’d be floating down the Columbia with a bullet in your head.”

“So, what do you suggest? Smoke signals?”

“A drop site. Someplace we can leave messages and check every day.”

Karla was silent for a while, savoring her carne asada burrito, then said, “How about using my mail box at the Hollywood post office annex? It’s where my disability check is sent each month. I’ll give you and James the combination.”

“That should work. Which brings up another matter. How do you feel about James?”

“Do I have any choice?” Karla asked. “From what that Marx woman said, at least what I thought she said, you two are double-teaming me. Like some kind of joint effort, and I’m the fall guy, so to speak.”

“It’s not like that. Think of us as your backup. We’ll give you whatever support you’d need. At least the FBI and the Portland police are working together for once. James is a straight shooter.”

“Look, Detective Tabor, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass for your love affair with the FBI. Or whether James gets the Man of the Year award or sings in a church choir. What I do care about are two things, and two things only. One—I get a bundle of money in two years, then you, and they, are out of my life. Two—if I run into trouble, you and Jimmy-the-Boy Scout come to my rescue. Got it? Does that compute?

An hour later, Tabor pulled up to the gate of the construction site where Karla had claimed the culvert pipe and had left the shopping cart with all her worldly belongings. The site was still closed and locked up, waiting for city and county permits before actual work started.

“What the . . .? That guy’s digging through my stuff!” Karla screamed. She opened the car door, jumped out, and ran toward the side of the lot where there was a break in the fence.

Tabor scrambled out and followed her.

“Get away from there, asshole. That’s mine!” she yelled, as she ran toward the man, her cane bouncing along the hardpacked dirt.

The man, a scruffy young black guy in dirty jeans and a filthy sweatshirt, looked up from digging through the cart’s load of clothing and other stuff. “What you gonna do, old woman, make me stop?” He laughed, then continued pawing around in Karla’s belongings, as if she weren’t coming his way. The next thing he knew was that he was sprawled on the ground and the woman who yelled was standing over him holding a cane with its tip pressed hard against his chest. “Hey, back off. I thought it was abandoned. I didn’t take anything,” he croaked.

At that moment, Tabor joined them and asked, “Is there a problem here?”

Karla looked at him as if she didn’t know him and said, “Buzz off, Buddy. This is none of your business.”

Tabor, realizing his mistake, said, “Whatever! I was passing by and saw what was going on. I thought you might need some help.” He turned and left without another word.

After Tabor was gone, Karla, after taking her cane off the man’s chest, said, “You’re not from around here. I know everyone in Hollywood. Who are you?”

The guy sat up and rubbed the knee Karla hit. She stepped back a pace and watched him painfully rise to his feet. Glaring at her, then nodding at the cart, he said, “There’s nothing in that mess I’d want, anyway. Can I leave? Or are you gonna hit me with that thing again?”

“Where are you from?” Karla asked, ignoring his question. “You sound like you are from somewhere in Africa.” From years of living on the streets and meeting all kinds of people, she had developed an ear for accents. “Where you been hanging out?”

“What’s it to you?”

“Just curious, that’s all,” she replied, then remained silent for a moment, as if turning over something in her mind. “I scored a few bucks today. Wanna share a bottle?”

The man hesitated a second, then said, “Why are you so generous all of a sudden? What do you want from me?”

“Nothing, I just wanna make up for attacking you, that’s all. Sometimes I get a little excited. Is your leg okay?”

He flexed his knee and grimaced, then said, “You whacked me pretty hard with that damn stick.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to do any permanent damage. I just wanted to stop you from stealing my stuff. How about something to drink while you recover?”

He started to step around her, but then hesitated, licked his dry lips, and said, “All right. Why not?”

Ten minutes later, Karla returned with a jug of cheap red wine and joined the man where he sat in the shade of an ancient maple that would be taken down soon to make room for another boxy apartment building.

“My name’s Sue,” she lied, after sitting down across from him. She twisted off the screw cap and handed the gallon jug to him.

He took a long pull, then sat the bottle on the bare ground in front of her. “Bako. Yeah, I’m from Africa—Nigeria. I came here with my mother when I was nine.”

“Are you living on the streets?”

“When my mom died I had no place else to go. After traveling up and down the coast for a few years, staying here and there, I ended up in a camp in North Portland. Been there for the last three years.”

“What are you doing here in Hollywood?”

“Why all the questions?”

Karla detected the suspicion in his question. She took a light swallow from the bottle and passed it back it to him, then said, “Just curious, that’s all. No harm meant.”

After another long pull on the jug, then another, he said, “Checking out opportunities.”

“Opportunities? For what?” she asked.

“None of your business.”

“Relax. Forget I asked. But I know what you mean. Pickings around here are getting scarce, if you know what I mean—too many of our kind have moved in.” She took another swallow of the wine. “In fact, I’ve decided to leave this area. Maybe I should try North Portland. What do you think?” She sat the bottle in front of him.

“Might be okay. There’s space available where I live. It’s in a patch of woods on the east bank of the Willamette River—about a mile south of Kelly Point Park. It’s not a bad spot. You’d be safe.”

“I’ve heard the Russian mafia can be a problem in that part of town.”

“Not if you stay out of their business. Or stay on their good side. They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.”

“Are you sure about that? People say they’re dangerous. That they control everything—that they want a piece of anything profitable.”

“Just stay out of their business, that’s all. But there are others you gotta stay away from.”

“Yeah, like who?”

“Other gangs, that’s all.”

“How can you be so sure about that? How do you know what their business is?” she asked, pushing harder to get him to reveal his connection to a gang, if any.

He snatched up the bottle and took another deep drink, then said, “Trust me, I know.”

“Okay, I believe you,” she replied, the force of his statement suggesting that maybe he did have a connection. 

An hour later they started off toward the Hollywood Transit Center MAX Station together. Her belongings were crammed into two scruffy packs, one on Bako’s back, the other on hers. Her stout oak cane made every step a little easier.

Undercover Agent - Episode One

It was just another mistake, like so many others she’d made in her troubled life. Seems like nothing ever went right no matter how hard she tried, as if she had been fated from childhood for an existence of misfortune—the orphanage, half a dozen abusive foster homes, erratic schooling, a two-year stint in prison, and now—homelessness. But despite the hardships she’d faced and overcome, she was not even close to giving up her quest for a better life. A tiny, indomitable kernel of optimism miraculously persisted deep in her psyche. Like many others in her predicament, she was a survivor. That’s a given. But she was more than just that—she was a fighter. For some inconceivable reason she knew she would eventually make a life for herself beyond just getting by on a miserly disability check, panhandling for chump change, and collecting bottles and cans when she got down to her last few bucks. Every single day on the street she sought that elusive goal. Never for a moment, even in the darkest of times when others like her would have succumbed to despair, did she doubt that she would eventually reach it. Karla Hammer was determined to be an exception to the rule.

This particular screw-up occurred on a warm midsummer Southeast Portland morning. Karla woke to sunshine, fighting its way through fully leafed vine maples, streaming the opening of a culvert pipe from which Karla had chased a feral dog the evening before. Safe in the solitude of a hideaway apparently not yet discovered by other street people, she luxuriated in its quiet peacefulness and imagined how the day might go. She knew what she was going to wear, having purchased the perfect outfit at the Salvation Army store the day before—a red skirt and a bright yellow long- sleeve blouse. Her nails were trimmed and clean and her hair was freshly cut in a short bob by her friend, Mrs. Tang, an enterprising homeless woman who could be found most Sunday mornings at the Hollywood Fred Meyer recycle station with comb and scissors and an beat-up, old wood stool.

It’s only 6:35. I’ve got plenty of time, she thought. The poster she’d found taped to a telephone pole on 42nd Avenue advertised for background actors for a movie being filmed around Portland. They needed people to be in restaurant, shopping mall, and street scenes. Check in time was 9 o’clock and she had memorized the address: 655 NE 7th Avenue. She knew the bus route to get there and planned to arrive early.

An hour later, fortified with free coffee and donated day-old donuts from the Hollywood Senior Center, Karla headed off to the movie staging area where she planned to be among the first in line. It wasn’t only the $75 a day that would bulk up her savings, but a chance, no matter how slim, there might be an opportunity to escape her current life. She was a firm believer in that old adage, “just showing up is the first step to success,” or something like that.

Karla got to Seventh and Holliday at 8:10 to find a three-quarters-full pay-to-park lot, but no other people. No movie-making stuff like trailers or lights or barriers, or anything. Nothing. Confused as much as angry, she took the poster she had ripped off the pole out of her tote bag and limped over to the guy directing newly arriving cars into parking slots. “Where’s the signup place for this movie?” she asked.

Between cars entering the lot and checking for messages on his phone, the lot guy barely acknowledged the garishly-dressed woman who had a walking cane in one hand and a cloth bag looped over her arm, and a yellow sheet of paper in the other hand. She was holding the paper out for him to look at. He looked at it for a second, then said, “You’re in the wrong place, lady. The address is northwest, not northeast. See.” He pointed at the address. “If you hustle across the river you might make it. But you better hurry,” he said, as he turned to collect money from a driver in a BMW who came uncomfortably close to Karla as if she weren’t even there.

“I’ll take the Broadway Bridge, it’ll put me close to where I need to be,” Karla said to the lot attendant as she left the lot and headed north on Seventh. Even with a bum leg she was a strong walker and made good time, especially without her shopping cart. She had left it chained up and covered with a blue tarp at the construction site where her big culvert pipe was waiting to be buried in a few weeks.

Concentrating on getting to the movie location as fast as she could and focusing on the sidewalk with its occasional heaves and cracks, she didn’t notice an SUV creeping along the curb behind her, nor did she pay attention to the people walking toward or past her. But she came alive when two pistol shots went off close by and a silver-haired man in a red Reebok running suit a few paces in front of her was lifted off the sidewalk and catapulted backwards. The first thing she did was glance at the SUV. Why she did that is still a mystery to her, but, nevertheless, it’s what she did. And in so doing, she saw a man pointing a gun out the window. She locked into his eyes as he locked into hers. He shifted the pistol toward her but was unable to take a shot because at that moment the driver took off like a rocket, leaving the shot unfired and Karla alive. But the shooter had seen that she had seen him, and in his world that was something that would have to be taken care of—loose ends couldn’t be tolerated.

The police arrived a few minutes later, but since Karla had no interest in getting involved, and had her own priority at that moment, she didn’t hang around. She kept going as if nothing had happened, although she was shaken to the core knowing the shooter would have killed her if he could have. And she’d heard enough stories about hit men to know he might look for her.

When she got to Weidler Street, which was one-way going east, she went left toward the river, due west. That way she could see cars coming in her direction. She kept a lookout for the shooter’s SUV as she headed toward the Broadway Bridge eight blocks ahead. She wished she had the cart with her belongings so she could change into something less obvious—the red and yellow outfit was like a flag screaming for attention. The killer would be able to spot her from a mile away.

At MLK, she waited in the doorway of a shop for the light to change. When she stepped off the curb into the crosswalk, she saw the killer get out of the SUV, which was behind a pickup in the line of traffic stopped for the red light. Her heart skipped a beat and a wave of fear shot down her spine, but a surge of adrenalin propelled her forward. She was halfway across the intersection before the killer got to the crosswalk and started after her. Thoughts buzzed in her head. She immediately realized that if she kept going he would follow until he could take his shot without attracting too much attention, then escape in the confusion of a shooting. So, she did the unexpected and turned around and ran directly at him as fast as she could. He must have been surprised because he hesitated to take out his pistol. Instead, he glanced at the vehicles edged up to the crosswalk waiting for the light to change. He and the crazy woman charging at him were in plain view of dozens of people. As he turned back toward the woman he heard a loud whack and felt an intense pain in his left ear. Then, before he realized what had happened, he felt as if his airway had been blocked and he couldn’t breathe. He gagged and turned to run to where his partner waited in the line of traffic, but suddenly fell to the street, tripped by the cane the woman had thrust between his legs. As blood gushed from his smashed ear he struggled to catch his breath—his larynx had been partially crushed when she landed the cane across his throat. Looking up from where he was lying, he saw the woman raising what looked like a sturdy wooden stick above her head, preparing to bring it down on him. Before he was able to get his pistol out, she smashed the hefty oak staff onto the top of his head with all the force she could muster. His eyes fluttered, and he instantly went limp. The gun slipped from his hand and landed among splashes of his blood. Karla kicked the pistol away and stood waiting for what would happen next.

An hour later, after the ambulance was gone and traffic rerouted, and as crime scene technicians combed the area for evidence, Karla was sitting in Detective Tom Tabor’s unmarked police car explaining what had happened for the third time. He had just gotten word that the killer’s SUV had been spotted, based on descriptions provided by witnesses that had been close by when the confrontation took place, and the driver had been arrested. Tabor told Karla that the shooting victim, the man in the red running suit, was a mob informer and the shooter was a notorious killer for hire.

“Is there a reward?” Karla asked. “You wouldn’t have him if not for me.”

“There might be. I’ll check.”

“Look, Detective, this little sideshow screwed up my chance to be in a movie. So why don’t you make use of that phone you’re holding and find out whether there’s a reward, or not? I can wait.”

By that time, Tabor was used to Karla's directness, so, instead of putting her off, he made a call to a friend in the local FBI office. After another call, this time to a higher-up, who wanted to know more about the woman responsible for the capture, he smiled and gave Karla the news. “There’s a twenty-five-thousand-dollar reward. You have an appointment with the Special Agent in Charge of the Portland FBI office tomorrow afternoon. She wants to talk to you about a job.

Karla was stunned by what Tabor said—overwhelmed not only by the amount of money, but also by the possibility of a job. A job? She wondered. What kind of job? Cleaning woman, something out of gratitude? “What kind of job?” she asked.

“Not sure. Although she did say something about undercover. I think she’s impressed by what you did. By the way, so am I . . . oh yeah, she wants me to come along, too. I’ll pick you up. Where do you live?”

“I live in a big pipe at a construction site on Halsey. You can’t miss it. There’s a chain link fence with a Keep Out sign. Honk your horn, I’ll be waiting.”

 

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