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Late Night Helpline: Episode Five

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Maneesha Mahur checked the caller ID when her mobile sang out, then answered. "Amita, my dear sister. What do you want, besides my lopped off head in a basket?"

"That is a good idea, Maneesha, but I have something else in mind right now. But before I get to that, I want to let you know that your weaselly little mole Khalid won’t be giving you any more information about my business. He had an unfortunate accident today and will soon be on his way out to sea."

"What happened? Did he get in the way of one of your bloody carving knives . . . or of Chandra's murderous hands?"

Amita ignored Maneesha's attempt to play down the significance of losing Khalid's spying and changed the subject. "I'm calling about something else, more important than that little rat. Something that might be a threat to both of us. Some American cowboy's nosing around. He told Khalid he wanted to get back money one of my guys scammed from his mother. Seems he's teamed up with some Sikh wanna-be warrior whose helping him."

"You learned this from Khalid?"

"Yes. And to complicate things even more, this guy stole some printouts off Khalid's desk. Seems Khalid intended to give them to you. By the way, as you can imagine, that's something I'm not happy about. Stop spying on me. I'd hate to have to take revenge for your amateur espionage, which you know I'm capable of doing—and wouldn't hesitate a single second to do."

"Okay, okay. Back off. Papa wouldn't want us fighting at a time like this, especially if there really is a threat from this guy. You and little brother Chandra will have to take care of that problem. I've got a bigger one—I need cash. You and Chandra are generating huge profits with your low-tech scamming game. I want you to loan me fifty thousand dollars. We're on the verge of our first big score, and it's for big returns—hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. Huge compared to your piddly hits of a few thousand dollars, if you're lucky."

"Fifty thousand?" What do you need that much for?"

"More computing power. What we're doing is a lot harder than your guys bluffing their way into some dumb user's home computer. We almost got our Trojan Cryptowall into a serious target in the States but were blocked by new security algorithms. My hackers are good, but they're limited by our system—we need more power to get our ransomware past these high power barricades that are being deployed now that they're getting serious about computer security."

Amita thought for a moment, then said, "All right, but I want twenty-five percent of your operation."

"You greedy bitch! I'm not surprised you'd try to take advantage of this situation. Fifteen, no more. And I want the money today."

"Twenty," Amita replied as she watched Chandra wrap Khalid’s body in the bloody rug he had fallen on. "Twenty or nothing. I'll have the money here tomorrow morning. Your Neanderthal henchman, Mukesh, can pick it up after ten." She ended the call without waiting for Maneesha's response and helped herself to another cup of coffee as Chandra dragged the rolled up rug through the doorway.

 

After I paid the thali lunch bill and as Balbir and I started our drive back to the Calplana Elite hotel, Balbir's nephew, Gobind, hurried back to his IIT office to begin an internet search for Chandra Mahur. He was also puzzled why that name Mahur was familiar for some reason but since he couldn't think why, he put the matter aside and focused on Chandra.

As Gobind booted up his desktop system, a graduate student knocked and opened the office door a crack. "Dr. Singh, can you take a look at the new code profiler? It's still inserting code snippets in the wrong places."

Gobind glanced over his shoulder. "No. Later." He jumped up out of his chair and ran over to the office door and locked it, then returned to his computer and scanned the list of file titles on one of the websites he'd broken into. It didn't take long to hit pay dirt—a three-year-old arrest record in one of the Mumbai police department's restricted data bases. The file was labeled 'secret' and was for Chandra's arrest for assault and battery. Not surprisingly, the charges had been dropped the day following the arrest because the alleged victim withdrew his complaint. Justice for sale wasn't that unusual and in itself wasn't of interest to Gobind. The pay dirt was that Chandra's residential address and phone number had not been deleted from the report. Nor had his arrest photos, black and white, front and side views of Chandra's head and upper torso. Balbir would now be able to surveil Chandra's movements, and Gobind would be able to monitor Chandra's calls by hacking into his mobile phone carrier's call system, which for those with the knowhow was as porous as a kitchen sieve.

But Gobind still couldn't get rid of the lingering thought that there was something about the name Mahur that he was missing. On a whim, he did a few more searches, including the IIT student data base. There it was, popping up right away—Amita Mahur, graduated three years ago with an MS degree in computer sciences. He remembered that Deepak Mahur's obituary mentioned a daughter, Amita—Chandra's younger sister. Then it came back to him—she had been dropped from the PhD program because she was caught trying to hack into the Bank of India's foreign operations division. To make matters worse, she had tunneled through the institute's server and used its online links to the bank. Fortunately, she was blocked from actual fund transfers by an effective security wall. Still, what she accomplished was impressive, not only in its level of hacking sophistication but perhaps more importantly with regard to the insight it provided to the perpetrator herself. Amita's advisor, whom Gobind knew to be as ethical as the day is long, at the time described her as brilliant but ethically challenged and sought to have her charged with a criminal act. But the institute had wanted no publicity for a potentially embarrassing hacking scheme by one of its students and was happy to sweep the incident under the rug and be rid of her.

Another hour of searching yielded nothing else about Chandra or Amita, and only a single reference to Chandra's older sister, Maneesha. She was mentioned in an article in the Mumbai edition of India Today as one of several attendees at a 2012 fund-raising function for Jaslok Hospital—nothing else since then. Before getting back to his graduate students and their problem with one of the lab computers, Gobind called Balbir and told him what he had found for Chandra and Amita. When the call ended, Gobind emailed Balbir the police photos of Chandra and the student photo of Amita he had found on the IIT website. After Balbir filled Alex in on what Gobind reported, they continued planning the next day's activities, only now with a major change since they knew where Chandra lived.

 

Balbir's yellow and black Ambassador taxi was sixth in a line of a dozen other taxis parked along the curb of a busy street across from a modern condominium building in a stretch of redevelopment at the edge of Malabar Hill, one of the plushier neighborhoods of Mumbai. It was nine a.m. and he and I were had been watching for the last hour everyone leaving the building either by the front door or in cars from the parking garage. So far, no Chandra. "It's still early, " Balbir said for the third time, finishing his coffee that had gotten cold by then.

"How do you know he's even home?" I asked.

"I don't. But this is the only lead we've got. If Chandra is here, and if he does come out, and if he goes to where he's involved with a scam operation, then at least we'd have a chance to take this hunt to the next step. At this moment, there's no other way to pick up his trail, at least not until Gobind gets a hit from his phone."

"I know you're right. It's just that it's all so much more complicated than I thought it would be. All I wanted to do was go to a bank and demand my mother's money. I didn't expect to get involved with an organized crime investigation. Sometimes I think I should give up this crazy idea and go home."

Balbir started to respond to my discouragement, but instead said, "There he is. In the blue shirt, heading toward the curb."

"That's him, all right. He's getting in that maroon sedan that just pulled up," I said, looking through small binoculars.

A minute later, Balbir was a few cars behind Chandra's Maruti heading south toward the southern tip of Mumbai. Before we got to the next intersection, Balbir's phone buzzed. "It's Gobind," Balbir said when he checked caller ID, then switched to speaker mode and answered. "Gobind. Anything?"

"Chandra called a number I traced to south Mumbai. It may have been his sister, Amita, but no names were mentioned. He's going to wherever she is now. From the cell tower grid, it looks like it's near the Mumbai docks. She said there's a job he's gotta finish. That it's starting to smell. She sounded angry and hung up before he could answer." Gobind then told Balbir he'd let him know if there were more calls.

After the call ended, Balbir smiled and said, "We're getting closer. Now the fun starts."

I couldn't help but notice the flash of excitement in Balbir's eyes. "What's the plan? What are we going to do? With guns blazing, we can't just bust into wherever they are and demand thirty-five thousand dollars, can we?"

Balbir bobbed his head in agreement. "Of course not. We'll take it one step at a time, the way good police work is done. Before each new step, we see what the lay of the land is. That's what we're going to do now. See where Chandra's going, who he's meeting. What he's doing. Then, if it's the right time and place, we make a move. Action that's well thought out and executed according to a plan. So, Alex, don't worry, I'm not going to let you get hurt . . . or killed. But we are going to get your mother's money. And I am going to bust these bastards . . . and, who knows, maybe even get back my job with the police. If Chandra's going where I think he might be going, we may be in for an exciting day."

 

When Chandra's driver pulled up in front of a gate closed across an entrance to a maze of walled-off passage ways and scattered warehouses along one of the roads parallel to a string of commercial docks, Balbir continued driving past as a guard approached Chandra's sedan. When Balbir was out of sight of the gate, he made a U-turn and came back to a dirt side street where he parked with a view of the entrance Chandra went through. "Now we watch and wait," he said.

"Watch and wait for what?" I asked, looking through the binoculars.

"I'm not sure. But we'll know it when we see it." Just then Balbir's phone buzzed. "Gobind. What's up?"

Gobind sounded excited. "I put a trace on Amita's phone. I got her number when Chandra called her this morning. She just got off a call from her sister, Maneesha. Someone named Mukesh is on his way to collect fifty thousand dollars from Amita He's also going to help Chandra get rid of a body. They didn't say whose, but Amita seemed anxious to be rid of it."

Balbir thanked Gobind for the information and filled me in on what he'd just learned. Over the following forty minutes we watched as a dozen young men arrived at or left the warehouse complex, most of them on bicycles or by autorickshaws. Then a late-model SUV pulled up to the gate.

I picked up the binoculars again. "The driver's huge. He's alone."

"Maybe it's Maneesha's guy, Mukesh—coming to collect the fifty thousand dollars and help Chandra with the body. Let's see what happens. And those young guys coming and going are probably scammers working for Amita and Chandra. I have a feeling this place is the heart of their operation."

Half an hour after the SUV disappeared into the maze of buildings, the gate swung open again and the same vehicle eased through and pulled into the street. The big man was at the wheel and headed in the direction away from where Balbir was parked. Chandra was in the passenger seat.

"Let's go," Balbir said, then pulled into the street at a safe distance behind the SUV. "They probably have the body Amita referred to with them. This is our chance to break this case wide open."

I tried to hide my concern about the boldness of Balbir's intentions, whatever they were, but had a hard time controlling my fear. "What are you planning to do? These guys are killers! At least one of them is. They might have guns. Why don't you just call the police?"

"The police? If the Mahurs learned anything from their father, it was to have the right police contacts. Paid-for cops who will protect them. No, calling in the Mumbai cops could end up being far worse for us than for the Mahur gang. Whatever we do, we'll have to do ourselves."

"Balbir! We can't take these guys on —they'll kill us."

"That is a theoretical possibility. But we're not going to let that happen. Surprise and boldness, along with this,” at that point he reached under his seat and withdrew a pistol, "should turn the odds in our favor."

"Oh my God. Balbir, I—"

"Look," Balbir said. "They're turning into an alley that goes down to one of the docks." He slowed, then pulled off the street and parked in the dirt strip next to a crumbling wall bordering a long, shambling warehouse.

"What are we going to do now?" I asked, panic building fast, afraid he would say what I thought he might. And he did.

"We'll follow them on foot. They won't hear us. And if we stay in the shadows of those banyan trees along that alleyway, they won't see us either.

"But—"

"Alex! All we're going to do is see what they're up to. If they're doing what I think they are, taking a body out to dump in the bay, we'll video it. We'll use that evidence to bust this gang . . . and get your money. You'll be back on a plane heading home soon. Okay? You do trust me, don't you?"

"Yeah, but—"

"Do you have your phone with you?" Balbir interrupted.

I took my phone out and showed it to him, as if I needed to prove I wasn't completely useless.

"Good. Get photos or videos of anything important. Let's go."

Late Night Helpline: Episode Four

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"Do you recognize any of those names?" I asked, after laying the three print-outs of recent e-mails back on the table where Balbir put them a few minutes earlier.

Balbir shook his head. "No. but that's not a surprise. When I was on the force, the criminal gangs were mostly into the old-fashion vices—prostitution, drugs, gambling, protection, extortion, that kind of thing. High-tech computer scamming was handled by a different division, and its rapid growth is more recent. From what I hear, it's huge. There're more tech-savvy kids than legitimate jobs for them. Especially in Mumbai. I also hear, it pays well."

I nodded at the papers. "We need to trace those names. It's the only thing we have to go on, isn't it?"

"You're the journalist," Balbir said. "Do an internet search. See what you can find. We also found the banker, for want of a better description of what he actually is. He's obviously connected to whoever took your mother's funds. Maybe her account number's in these lists," he said, glancing at the other pile of print-outs.

"I planned to do a search. I was just wondering if you knew someone here in Mumbai who could help with the complicated tech stuff," I said, as I booted up my laptop. While waiting to connect with the hotel's Wi-Fi, I handed my mother's banking information to Balbir. " Here's her account number. Her phone number's there, too. Maybe it'll be on those lists."

I pulled up Google and typed in one of the names from the sheets of emails while Balbir scanned the account numbers. A few minutes later he said, "She's not here."

"I struck out, too. At least for this person, Ambar Sengupta. I'll try the other name, Chandra Mahur"

Balbir looked up from the printout he was studying. "Mahur? That family name rings a bell . . . but not Chandra. See what you can find for 'Mahur and Mumbai crime.' "

I typed those three words. Finally, on the twelfth page of Google hits I found a link to a 2011 article in the Mumbai News. It reported the death of a Mumbai mobster named Deepak Mahur. "Is this guy familiar? His partially decomposed body was found in Mahim Creek."

Balbir nodded. "Yeah I remember him. A vicious, mid-level gangster in one of the South Mumbai gangs. See if you can find a more complete report on his death. Or an obituary, if there is one. Maybe he had some children who followed in his footsteps."

A few minutes later I struck pay dirt—a short notice on the fifteenth page of Google hits. I skimmed the write-up, then read part of it out loud, "Mr. Mahur's survivors include a son, twenty-three year-old Chandra, and two unmarried daughters, Amita, age twenty-eight, and Maneesha, age thirty three."

"That's it!" Balbir exclaimed. "The son—Chandra. He must be the connection between the banker and the scam. We need to find him. I bet he's running a call center focused on scamming gullible targets like your mother. Maybe he's traded his father's world of extortion and murder for the less dangerous enterprise of hi-tech crime."

"Why can't we just get the banker to give the money back to me? Wouldn't that be easier than chasing down this gangster?"

Balbir shrugged his shoulders. "There're a couple of problems with that. First, it's unlikely we'd find him in that rat-hole of an office in that rundown mall in Bandra. Whoever he works for would have shut it down by now. Second, even if we did find him, short of physical violence we'd have no way of getting him to pay up. And I don't recommend getting physical with these people. If we try to play tough in their league, chances are we'd end up as two more corpses in Mahim Creek. No. The only way to get the money back is to convince whoever's running this scam operation that it's in their best interest to give your mom a refund, so to speak."

I saw the logic of what Balbir said but was at a loss about how to go about such an undertaking. "What do you think we should do?" I asked.

"Simple. Find Chandra Mahur and, like in that movie, make him an offer he can't refuse."

At first, I thought he was kidding, trying to be funny. But I then I realized he was dead serious. The look on his face and the tone of his voice made that clear—he intended to do what he said. Or at least try. What bothered me was the fact that if he failed, I'd go down with him. And I sure as hell didn't like the idea of joining Chandra's gangster father as fish food at the bottom of the Arabian Sea. "How do you propose we go about executing this simple plan of yours?" I asked half in jest, half hoping he actually did have a plan of some sort.

He answered immediately, apparently impatient to tell me. "We'll start with my nephew, Gobind. He's on the faculty at IIT, here in Mumbai. He's an information technology professor. We've got to locate Chandra's operation and get inside it, hack into it, then use it against him."

I was stunned at the audacity of Balbir's proposal, at the idea of illegal hacking, especially into the scamming operation of a Mumbai criminal. The risk seemed far greater than the amount of money we might recover. On the other hand, the journalist side of me was hooked by the possibility of accomplishing such a feat, then writing a feature article describing what I'd done. The thought of a Pulitzer flashed through my mind. "Okay," I said. "When can we see him?"

Balbir grabbed his phone. "I'll call him now."

Balbir picked me up at noon the following day. When I settled into the passenger seat of his taxi, he said, "We're having lunch with my nephew at one. We'll meet him at a Panchavati Gaurav thali restaurant in Powai. It's near ITT."

"Thali? What's that?" I loved Indian cuisine but wasn't familiar with that word.

"A thali meal has individual dishes from the six basic flavors—sweet, salty, bitter, sour, astringent, and spicy—it's usually vegetarian. Panchavati is a chain offering food at half the price of fancy competitors whose thali isn't nearly as good."

"Okay.  But tell me about your nephew. And how far is it to this Powai place?"

"Powai's about six or seven miles from here—a couple of miles north of the airport. It's on the southern edge of Powai lake. The IIT campus is on the northern edge."

"And your nephew? What about him?"

Balbir pulled out of the hotel driveway and headed for the Western Express Highway. "Gobind is my older sister's youngest son. He's a computer whiz. He graduated from the institutes Computer Science program in three years and was accepted into its graduate program. He got a PhD three years later. Now he's a Professor in that department. The youngest one ever. His specialty is computer crime."

"He sounds like the right guy for this job. Did you tell him about what I want to do? About my mom's money?"

Balbir gave me a look. "You mean 'we', don't you?"

"Yeah, sure. It's just that I still have a hard time accepting that you are willing to get involved in such a risky endeavor with a guy you just met. That's all."

"Well, accept it. As I said yesterday, I've got my reasons. As far as I'm concerned, we're in this together. Now we just have to convince Gobind to join us."

"How're we going to do that?" I asked when Balbir stopped for a traffic light and as I tried to ignore the young girl saying something at my window. She was holding a filthy infant in one arm and patting her mouth with the other hand to stress her hunger.

The light turned green and Balbir sped forward, obviously aware of my discomfort. "I told him about what you want to do. And why." He  understands how cracking a computer scamming operation would benefit his career. Gobind's an ambitious guy. He's interested, all right."

Balbir spotted Gobind in a booth near the back of the room as soon as we entered  Panchavati's. When he stood to greet us, I was struck by his resemblance to Balbir—same tall, broad-shouldered build, same neatly trimmed beard, same air of self-confidence. Besides his age, only his turban was different, blue instead of green. He had a firm handshake, like his uncle, and  seemed happy to be meeting with us.

After we sat and Gobind poured tea, Balbir gave him a brief summary of what we had done the day before. Then Gobind ordered thali for three from the waiter who had been hovering nearby. With these preliminaries out of the way, I filled Gobind in on exactly what happened to my mom. I showed him what I found out from her bank and the FTC computer scam group and gave him copies of the printouts we got from the Bandra banker's office.

He was still going through the information when our food arrived. He laid the papers aside and began to describe the various dishes, even to the point of telling me the differences between the thalis from the different regions of India. The food was as good as Balbir said it would be, and Gobind's culinary history was fascinating, even though I was more interested in Gobind's thoughts on how to get back my mother's money and whether or not he would help us. And if he would, how.

Finally, after the plates and serving dishes were cleared from the table, I broached the problem. "So, what do you think? Is there any chance of success?"

"What do you mean by success?" Gobind asked.

I started to say it was getting the money back but then hesitated, the question spinning around in my thoughts. Finally, I said. "Several things. Getting my mother’s money back, but it’s more than just that. I want whoever did this to be punished. Stealing from an old lady who isn't sharp enough to fend off an attack on her financial security warrants nothing less."

Gobind nodded, then said, "Uncle Balbir told me you’re a journalist. Is that really why you’re here?"

The directness of his question caught me off guard. "Ah . . . yeah, that's part of it. But not all of it. I'm my mother's only child and feel responsible for her. That includes her financial security. She needs that money. On the other hand, I won't deny that I'd like to do a story on this topic. Afterall, journalism is my occupation. Do you have a problem with that?"

Gobind glanced at Balbir.

Balbir shrugged his shoulders and bobbed his head a little.

Gobind turned back to me. "Okay. I can live with that. I just needed to know what your motives were. If I take this on, I need to know that you're committed to seeing it through to the end, whatever that might be. And I wouldn't mind if you do a story about what we find, especially if you show me in a good light. I've got a career to think about, too."

 I reached across the table and we shook hands. Then Gobind poured more tea and ordered kheer for dessert. 

Meanwhile, ten miles to the south, a heated conversation was taking place in a closed-door office next to a large windowless room on the second floor of a dilapidated warehouse near the southern tip of Mumbai. The big windowless room was occupied by two dozen young men sitting at computer terminals and with earbuds tethered to phone sets plugged into their computer modules. The constant hum of  chatter was mostly in English and focused on convincing call targets to give the callers access to their computers. That was the hard part, but if that was achieved, the next part was easier—scamming money from them, the amount depending only on how much could be extracted from whatever was found in the target's files and links. The success rate averaged one hit for every twenty-two calls, not bad since it only took about an hour to make those calls.

In the office, a woman questioning the Bandra banker was highly agitated. "How did he find your location? That rundown mall was supposed to be under the radar—at least that's what you told us when we set your office up there. Who is he?" Her voice revealed a level of concern rarely seen in her usual icy calm.

The banker looked back and forth from the woman to a man who sat next to her but saw only threat in their eyes. He shuddered, then said, "I told you, I don't know who he is or how he found me. All I know is that he and a big Sikh guy burst into the office and took some papers off my desk when the security guard came in and attacked him. There was a fight and a lot of confusion. They ran out before the police got there. I discovered the printouts were missing after they left."

"Papers?" Chandra Mahur, who had sent the emails Alex stole copies of, stood and walked around the table to where the banker sat—a short length of rope with wooden grips at each end dangled from one hand. "What papers, Khalid?"

"I was sorting out the week's transfers. They were lists of bank account numbers we got money from, and the telephone numbers of the targets, that's all."

"That's all? Nothing else?"

Kahlid knew the fate of those who had lied to one or other of the Mahur clan in the past. "Ah . . . there were printouts of a couple of emails," he said in a trembling voice.

Chandra's laid the garrote on one of Khalid's shoulders. "What emails?"

Khalid glanced at the wood-handled rope hanging down in front of him and shuddered. "Three of them. From you to Sengupta. Authorizing transfers between accounts."

"You had sensitive communications like that lying around on your desk? What the hell were you thinking?"

"I didn't think anyone would suddenly come out of nowhere  and steal them. I was just doing my job."

Amita, Chandra's younger sister and who had been badgering Kahlid, slammed her fist on the table. "Stop" Both of you! The damage has been done. This American, or whatever he is, has this information now. That's one problem, and we need to take care of it. But what really concerns me is why you printed out this stuff. What were you gonna do with those copies?"

Unable to answer, Khalid looked down at the table top and trembled with fear.

Amita nodded at Chandra. Suddenly Chandra's rope was looped around Khalid's scrawny neck. Khalid grabbed at the tightening garrote as he gasped desperately. Then Chandra released the pressure and Khalid sucked in as much air as he could.

Amita continued as if nothing had happened. "Khalid! Look at me. What were you going to do with those printouts?"

 

When Khalid hesitated, Chandra tightened the rope.

"Maneesha wanted them," Khalid blurted out, probably realizing he was signing his death warrant by doing so.

Amita jumped to her feet and screamed, "You were gonna give them to my bitch from hell sister?"

Khalid was shaking and whimpering so much he was barely able to answer. "She said if I didn't keep her informed about the money your operation was bringing in, she'd have Mukesh visit me. You know what that means. I had no other choice—she's ruthless, and Mukesh is a monster."

Amita nodded at Chandra. Sixty seconds later, Khalid was dead.

Ignoring Khalid's limp body slide off the chair onto the floor, Amita kept her focus on her brother. "What was it he said about the man who took the printouts off his desk?"

"Something about his mother. Said he wanted a refund."

Amita nodded toward the door. "Talk to the guys out there. See what you can find out about that. Sounds like a scam that went bad."

Late Night Helpline: Episode Three

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I was well-rested from a good night's sleep and fortified with an excellent breakfast—Balbir had been right about the hotel's restaurant—when a call from the front desk informed me my driver had arrived. I was anxious to get on with my quest, and when I climbed into the back of Balbir's taxi and greeted him with a friendly hello, I blurted out, "Let's start with the bank."

"May I see that address again?" Balbir asked after returning my greeting. I handed him the printout. "Maharashtra Road. I think it's somewhere around the Bandra Railway Station. It might take a while, but I'll find it."

Because of the heavy traffic, far worse than the previous night, which had been bad enough, it did take a while. But finally, we got to the right location and Balbir edged through a throng of pedestrians walking along the edge of the street—there was no sidewalk—and parked as far out of the stream of human traffic as possible. We were on the opposite side of a wide street, across from an older, four-story shopping mall. Its splotchy, black mildew and peeling paint was in stark contrast to the shiny new malls springing up like mushrooms in the Mumbai suburbs north of the city center. A gaudy sign said, "Bandra 311 Mall." 311 was the address of the bank I was looking for.

A string of small shops at street-level sat back about a dozen feet from the road: auto parts, mobile phones, house wares, bicycle repair, a pharmacy, spices, a tea shop, all of them crowded with shoppers and apparently doing a thriving business. A broad, open terrace occupied the front section of the open-air second level and was bordered on both sides and at the rear with more shops. Stairs at each end of the street-front shops led up to the terrace. The businesses scattered around that level were higher-end: gold jewelry, Titan watches, handicrafts, men's clothing, saris, and home textiles, among others.

After studying the shops on both levels, Balbir said, "I don't see any bank. If it's here, it must be one of the businesses in those upper floors. There should be a directory up there. There's a stairwell in the middle of the back wall. Let's see what we can find."

From Balbir's observations and statement, he seemed to be offering to accompany me in my search for the Bandra Crescent Bank, a welcome offer since he was far more capable of navigating this mall than I would ever be.

The directory of occupants on the wall next to the stairs to the upper levels listed Crescent Bank of Bandra in Suite 423. We made our way up to the fourth floor where we saw a sign indicating Suites 400-423 to the left, down a dank hallway lit by a single lightbulb hanging from the low ceiling.

I knocked on the door, which had no signage or other information other than the suite number, then opened it without waiting for a response. The only man in the small, windowless room glanced up from his computer screen when we entered. From the look on his face, he was apparently shocked at our sudden appearance. He quickly shut the laptop and stood up, scanned the papers and files scattered across his desk, then said, "Who are you? What do you want?" He looked to be in his thirties, maybe early forties, thin, bespectacled, longish oily hair covering his ears and reaching his shoulders. He was attired in dark slacks and a blue, long-sleeved dress shirt. A gold Rolex peeked out from the edge of the shirt cuff on his left arm and a gaudy gold ring adorned the pinky finger of his right hand. He seemed to be nervous and continued to glance at the papers spread out around him.

"Is this the Bandra Crescent Bank?" I asked without introducing myself or answering his questions. Balbir, who had remained standing in the doorway for a few seconds, stepped forward, closed the door, and moved next to me.

Scrutinizing Balbir, then turning back to me, the man repeated, "Who are you?"

"One if your customers."

"What? What are you talking about?" he asked, then sat back down in his chair.

"I've come all the way from the United States for a refund. A refund for a recent transaction of yours that was fraudulent. That's what I'm talking about.

"You better get out of here," the banker said, as he pulled his chair closer to the desk and began frantically gathering the loose papers and file folders. As he reached for the ones close to where I stood, I took a step forward and planted my hands palm-down on the desk top, pressing on a sheaf of the papers almost without noticing. I leaned in close to his face, prepared to follow up on my challenge. But before I was able to say anything, the door burst open and a burly man rushed into the already crowded room. He had on a shabby, brown uniform and wore scuffed-up boots. He held a wooden baton in his hand that was raised in my direction. In what seemed like an unmeasurable flash of time, Balbir drove a crushing blow into the guard's face and then in a seamlessly continuous movement slammed his other fist into the man's wrist ,which sent the baton flying onto the gritty floor. When Balbir hit the guard, the banker jumped up out of his chair and crouched back against the wall behind him.

As I turned away from the banker in response to what had just happened, Balbir grabbed my arm and said, "We have to go, now."

"I want to get my mother's money back first," I said, as if that would actually happen in the chaos of the moment.

"No! We need to get out of here!" The urgency in Balbir's command got my attention and I followed him out of the room, leaving the guard on the floor with blood streaming from his crushed nose and the banker cowering behind his desk sputtering what must have been obscenities.

Balbir hurried along the hall with me close behind. At the stairwell, we encountered two khaki-clad policemen coming up the stairs.

Before either policeman noticed us standing on the landing, Balbir, in a calm voice, said, "Officers, something's going down there," and pointed toward the office we had just left. "We heard some yelling. Sounded like someone might be in trouble."

"Who are you? What are you doing here?" One of the policemen said as they continued their way up.

Balbir answered at once. "We were at the mall office at the other end of the hall. My rent was due."

When the policemen reached the top of the stairs, they paused and one of them looked at me, glanced at my computer bag, and asked, "Who are you?"

"A friend of Mr. Singh's. His cousin is my neighbor in the States," I answered with a straight face.

The other cop said, "Wait here," then both of them started down the hallway toward the bank office.

When the officers were no more than ten feet along the hall, Balbir silently motioned for me to follow him down the stairs. We were careful not to make any noise while we went as fast as we could. A few seconds later we were back on the terrace, then made our way through the milling crowd to Balbir's taxi as quickly as we could without attracting attention. As we pulled into traffic a moment later, I glanced up at the terrace level and spotted the two policemen running toward the stairs to the street. Luckily, they didn't notice us as we vanished in the chaos of Maharastra Road.

When Balbir pulled his taxi into the courtyard of the Calplana Elite Hotel an hour later, I asked him to join me in the restaurant—we had a lot to consider. During the drive from the mall to the hotel we had talked some, but the attention Balbir had to pay to the harrowing traffic prevented us from exploring the full ramifications of what happened at the bank. I also wanted to know more about this man whose quick action got us out of what could have turned out to be a disastrous situation, to say the least. His actions exceeded what would be expected from the usual Mumbai taxi driver, and I wanted to understand how that could be.

Seated in a small alcove off the hotel lobby with a platter of warm samosas and cups of steaming chai on the table between us, I thanked him again for managing our successful escape from the guard and the two policemen. Then I addressed one of the issues that had been bothering me. "How did the security guard and the police know to come to the banker's office? And get there so fast?"

"When you said you were there for a refund, the banker reached under his desk, an obvious move to use an alarm button to call for help. A crooked enterprise like the one he's involved in always has a stable of paid-for cops who provide protection. The alarm must have alerted the mall security guard as well. These phony businesses are embedded in the local economy and plant corruption at all levels. You may be up against a formidable foe, which might even be controlled by one of the organized crime gangs. If that turned out to be the case, the best thing you could do would be to get out of Mumbai as fast as possible.

"Are you saying there's no chance of getting my mother's money back? That I should just turn tail and go home?"

Balbir picked up a samosa and dipped it in a bowl of tamarind sauce, bit off half of it, then placed the remainder on a small plate in front of him. Then he took a drink of chai. "Not necessarily. We need to dig deeper into the group that hacked your mother. If we're lucky, they might just be an independent gang having nothing to do with organized crime. But we'd still have to be careful—stirring a simmering pot too vigorously can cause it to boil over."

I was stunned by his offer. "We? You mean you're willing to help chase down the hacker? Why would you do that?"

"Why would I do that? I've been wondering the same thing. Maybe  because of the encounter we had at the banker's office. Seeing again how dangerous our world here in Mumbai is. How, without help, could a naïve foreigner like you ever get justice for your mother? In fact, if you persist in this mission alone, your unrecognizable corpse would probably be drifting out to sea within twenty-four hours. "

"That's an admirable sentiment, and I am well-aware of the extent of criminality in Mumbai, but it's not an answer to my question. Why would you help me? You don't even know who I am."

"I know enough about you. Your journalism is easily found on the internet, which I did last night. But this has more to do with me than you."

"What do you mean?

Balbir took another drink of tea then ate the rest of the samosa. "I may as well tell you. You'd find out sooner or later. I was an officer with the Mumbai police Organized Crime Unit. They discharged me five years ago, what they called early retirement."

"Early retirement? You're not that old."

"No. I'm not. The problem was, I wasn't willing to go along with the corruption. I was the only officer who wasn't on the payroll of the gangs. I was an honest cop, a difficult path to follow in today's police force. It didn't help that I'm a Sikh either, a definite disadvantage among a majority Hindu force."

"Your police background explains your quick actions at the banker's office. But won't those two cops who came up the stairs put two and two together and come looking for you?"

"Maybe, but they're not on the Mumbai city force. They're Bandra police and might not know about me, especially with five years gone by. But as a precaution maybe I should shave my beard and get rid of the turban. I'm sure God would understand."

I smiled at his crack about God but didn't say anything since I wasn't sure how serious he was, or if he was at all. I knew Sikhism was a monotheistic religion but had no idea how devoted Balbir was to its teachings. Possibly picking up on my uncertainty, he said, "One of our gurus said that one must first try peaceful negotiation in the pursuit of justice, but if that fails it's legitimate to draw the sword in defense of righteousness.

"Does that explain why there are so many Sikhs in the Indian Army?" I had discovered that obscure fact during one of my previous projects.

Balbir nodded. "We're only two percent of the population but make up twenty percent of the armed forces. Yes. It has a lot to do with that philosophy. And if you're wondering, as I'm sure you must be, it's also why I'm willing to help you in your fight against the criminals who stole your mother's money."

Almost overwhelmed by his offer, I reached across the table and we shook hands. "Thank you, Mr. . . . ah . . . do you mind if I call you Balbir? We may as well be on a first-name basis if we're going to be partners in this crusade."

"Not at all," he said without delay.

I smiled and said, "Then from now on, it's Alex, Balbir, not 'sir.' But do you think we have a chance of winning?"

"As far as our chances of winning, I'd say the odds are not in our favor. But we Sikhs have a long history of those kinds of odds, and we're still here. And we shouldn't give up before we even start. Sometimes, things that move an investigation forward appear at the most unexpected times, or from unexpected sources. We have to be prepared to take advantage of those opportunities."

It was then I remembered a crucial moment at the Bandra bank office when the security guard burst in, and I withdrew a folded sheaf of papers from my pants pocket. "Here, look at these. I grabbed them off the banker's desk when all hell broke loose. I'm pretty sure he didn't notice me take them."

Balbir carefully examined each of the seven sheets of standard-size, white copy paper, sorting them into two piles as he went. When he finished, he said, "Four of these have lists of numbers, probably phone numbers and account IDs. The others are copies of e-mail communications— printouts that show e-mail addresses and text—senders' names, too. They may lead us to the next link in the money chain. Or, on the other hand, they may tell us whom to avoid. Either way, your quick thinking gives us somewhere to start."

Late Night Helpline: Episode Two

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The next morning, I was with my mother in the dining room of her second-tier retirement complex at 9:10, finishing my third cup of watery coffee. She was visibly shaken, in shock from discovering that her savings and checking accounts had been depleted. The bank claimed they couldn't do anything to help since the accounts had been accessed with the correct username and password. I'd also reported the scam to the Federal Trade Commission Scam Hotline and the FBI Computer Crimes Division, but there was nothing either of them could do to recover the funds either—that was beyond their charter. They simply listed my mom as another casualty. Like others scammed this way, there seemed to be no resort, nothing the victims could do.

My mother was now financially destitute since she had no income other than her monthly Social Security check, which wasn't enough to meet  her expenses. Retirement wasn't cheap, even in a relatively low-level establishment like Walnut Grove Villa. Not only had she been ripped-off twelve years earlier by her now-deceased, ne'er-do-well third husband, but it had happened again. This time by someone just as evil—and apparently just as impossible to recover the money from. I loved my mother and empathized with her situation, especially as she was drifting closer to the dark void of dementia. As I sat there witnessing her emotional distress, I became more incensed by the viciousness of what an uncaring scammer did to her—the pain and misery he'd caused. That's when it hit me—I would find the bastard and get her money back. I had no idea how, but I intended to find a way. Not incidentally, I felt it might be a good story, too. And like any other journalist, I'm always open to a good story.

The first thing I did after getting mom calmed down and settled in her knitting group's Friday morning get-together, was to get back on the phone with the FTC scam center. After three frustrating transfers, I hooked up with a guy named Arvin Klooper, the agency's specialist for India-based scams. He wasn't surprised when I told him what happened when I had called the number the scammer used, which was listed in my mother's phone's calls log. "They all use untraceable voice-over-internet numbers. You'll never find him that way," he explained, as if I were a first grader asking about a Game Boy glitch.

So how can I find who did it?" I asked.

"What? You wanna' try to find this guy? Why? What good would that do?"

"I'm gonna get my mom's money back. And I'm gonna kick his ass. Teach him a lesson."

Other than a few sighs and rapid clicks of keyboard action, there was a long silence at Arvin's end. Then, just before I started to ask if he was still there, he said, "All right. The only way to find who stole your mother's money would be through her bank. And then, and only then, if I knew what records they might find, and if I snuck into a restricted agency channel to trace the transfers, I might, just might, be able to help you. That's a lot of ifs."

"Please," I said, "you gotta try. Somebody needs to. These son's-of-bitches are causing financial havoc to innocent victims. Sure, I want to get my mom's money back. But I also want to make an example of these people. Make a big splash in the news. Let more people know what's goin' on with these scammers." Then I told him I was a freelance-investigative reporter. "Check out my articles. My credentials," I implored.

I waited while Arvin put me on hold and Googled my work. He came back on the line few minutes later. "Okay. If you get me the bank's information about her funds transfer. I'll see what I can do. I can't promise anything, but I'll give it a try."

The loss of her money was enough to break through mom's wall of stubbornness and convince her to grant me power of attorney for her affairs, something I'd been trying to persuade her to do for several years. As they say, money talks, so does the loss of it. Armed with that legal power, and with the implied threat of disclosure of non-cooperation, I convinced the bank's fraud department to trace the path of my mother's money's disappearance into the convoluted banking labyrinth of India. They got as far as an international bank in New Delhi. I passed that connection on to Arvin, and the following day he told me he'd been able to trace the next transfer to a recently established local bank in Mumbai—The Crescent Bank of Bandra. After he emailed me the bank name, address, and the account number into which the funds were deposited, I booked a flight to Mumbai.

*      *      *

I landed at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport three days later, at 1:35 AM, exhausted from twenty hours of crowded coach-class travel and with second thoughts about my hasty decision to track down the culprit who stole my mother's nest egg. I'd been to India before, for a story about outsourcing computer programming by American tech companies, so I wasn't surprised when exiting the terminal, I encountered what seemed like total chaos. A surging crowd of frenzied travelers was trying to squeeze into the terminal through the two entrance doors, baggage carriers grabbed at my carry-on, hotel reps and wanna-be guides were vying for my attention, and taxi drivers were flogging their services. The pungent smell of India penetrated the humid, hot night air and immediately brought back strong memories of my previous visit. I could detect the smoke from cow dung patty fires blended with the stench of open sewers wafting from the nearby slums, tinged with the aroma of whatever flowers happened to be blooming and street food cooking close by. Ignoring the out-stretched hands and verbal onslaught, I struggled through the throng to the edge of the wide sidewalk and waved at the driver who was first in an impossibly long line of yellow and black taxies. When he pulled up to where I waited, the tall, broad-shouldered, turbaned and bearded driver got out and took my suitcase After he put it in the trunk, he asked, "Sir. Where do you want to go?"

I took a folded paper from my shirt pocket and handed it to him. "To this hotel. Do you know it?"

He studied it a moment, then, with a frown on his face, asked, "Are you sure this is right? Ghatkapor Garden Palace?"

"I sensed his concern. "Yes. I made a reservation over the internet—at their website. Is there a problem?"

Just then another taxi pulled behind the Sikh's and honked aggressively. A family of six with an assortment of cloth bags, rope-tied boxes, and mismatched luggage was obviously anxious to get to their destination.

"Please, sir. Get in. We should go."

When we were out of the airport area and heading south on a busy main road, the driver said, "Sir, that hotel is in an unsafe area and has a bad reputation."

"It looked okay on their website. What's wrong with it?"

"Trust me, sir. It's not for you. It's a place where women come and go. Rooms can be rented by the hour. Do you know what I mean? And it's a dangerous neighborhood."

"Are you trying to steer me to a more expensive hotel? Do you get a kickback if you do?"

"No sir. I am only telling you what is true."

"Isn't it near the airport?"

"Yes. Only a few miles from here."

"All right. Let's go. I want to see what it's like. Then I'll decide."

Even at that ungodly hour, traffic was surprisingly heavy. Smoke-billowing, garishly-painted diesel trucks crowded the two-lane road and honked their horns at the slightest provocation. A thick haze of dust and smoke dimmed the light from flickering infrequent street lamps. Pedestrians, bicycles, motor scooters, feral dogs, ox carts, and occasional cows forced the fast-moving traffic into perilously narrow lanes. But my driver navigated with apparent ease, seemingly oblivious to what I perceived as either unavoidable collisions ahead of us or else looming, impenetrable congestion.

Twenty minutes later, we pulled into a dusty alley that led to a poorly-lit, trash-littered, hard-packed dirt courtyard bordered on three sides by mold-stained, four-story concrete buildings. On one of the buildings, a yellow neon sign over a door with peeling red paint said, "Ghatkapor Garden Palace." Just then two women in short skirts and flimsy blouses emerged from the building and made their way teetering on high heels toward a waiting three-wheeler parked by the entrance.

"This doesn't look anything like what they showed on their website," I said. "You were right. I can’t stay here. Do you know of a good hotel that isn't too expensive?"

"I know of several. It depends on what part of Mumbai you need to be in. The traffic is so bad that sometimes it takes hours to go from one part of the city to another."

I took a sheet of paper out my computer case and showed him the address of the bank I intended to visit.

He looked at the printout for a moment. "The Calplana Elite's in this area. It's Indian-managed, not expensive, and clean. They have a good restaurant, too."

"Okay," I said with relief.

The Calplana was on a side street half a block off the main road. There was less dust in the air and traffic noise was barely noticeable. Its front entrance was set back from the street and bordered by flowering trees and well-tended flower beds. The driver carried my bag into the office, rang the bell at the desk, and waited with me until a sleepy clerk shuffled out of a room behind the check-in area. The lobby was well-appointed with a rattan lounge and several chairs. Fragrant flower arrangements stood on each of two tables where glossy magazines were spread out. I nodded my approval at the driver who then exchanged a few words in Marathi with the clerk. He stepped a few paces away while I checked in.

Holding my room key, I went over to where the driver waited. "How much do I owe you?"

"He glanced at his watch. "Six hundred rupees."

Quick calculation told me that was about eight dollars. He could have charged twice that much, and I would have been happy to pay it. "That seems low. Shouldn't it be more?" I handed him a thousand rupees and said, "Here. Thank you for your help tonight."

He thanked me, put the banknote in his pants pocket, then turned and started toward the door. But before he took more than a few steps, I said, "Just a moment, Mr. . . ."

He stopped and turned to face me. "Singh. Balbir Singh."

I was struck by the unmistakable pride in his response. I returned his gaze and said, "I'd like to employ your services tomorrow. I have some business to do and need a driver." I went to where he stood and extended my hand. "My name is Alex Ackroyd."

He shook my hand with a firm grip, then asked, "Where is your business?"

"At that bank. The one I told you about."

"It's in East Bandra. Not too far from here. You could take a tuk-tuk—an auto rickshaw. Cheaper than me, or any taxi."

"I know I could. This isn't my first visit to India. But I'd prefer to have you drive. There might be other places I'd need to go."

He was silent for a moment, then said, "I know the East Bandra district. I've never seen a bank named Crescent anywhere around there . . .are you sure about the address?"

"It's a new bank. The person who found it for me said it opened up only a few months ago."

"Hmm . . . all right. What time do you want me to pick you up?"

"I need to get some sleep. How about one o'clock?

"No problem. I'll see you then. Good night."

I watched as he walked to his taxi then drive out of the hotel's courtyard, grateful he would return the next day. Something about him gave me a feeling he would make my task in Mumbai easier.

Late Night Helpline: Episode One

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The bazaar adventure, the topic of this story, began a month ago with a telephone call at two in the morning. I didn't recognize the number revealed in the caller ID window—but grogginess from being jolted out of deep sleep must have been why it didn't occur to me it might be a scam call. In fact, my first thought was of my elderly mother, so I answered.

Having traveled extensively as an investigative reporter, and having encountered all kinds of people, I immediately recognized the voice as South Asian, probably Indian or Pakistani. Assuming the caller was just another scammer trolling for a victim, I started to hang up. But before I did, I caught the words Hazel Ackroyd and bank account. Hazel Ackroyd is my mother's name. He didn't say who's bank account he was referring to, but I assumed it was hers since she did online banking, even though I'd tried unsuccessfully many times to discourage her from doing so. My instant reaction was that she'd been scammed, and my heart rate shifted into overdrive.

"Who is this?" I asked, as if some cunning scammer in an undisclosed call center in Southeast Asia would give me his name, not that it made any difference anyway.

"George," he said with a lilt in his voice, then quickly added, "Don't hang up, Mr. Ackroyd. I am a technical specialist with Microsoft and I only want to help you."

My initial grogginess changed to concern, and I paid no attention to his offer of help. "What do you have to do with my mother? And what did you say about a bank account? What's going on?"

"Yes, Mr. Ackroyd. Those are the right questions. That is why I am calling, good sir."

"What are you talking about?" I fought to control my agitation.

"Sir. I am calling only to help you with your problem. But you must keep calm and do what I say."

"What do you mean my problem? I don't have a problem. What have you done to my mother?"

"Please, Mr. Ackroyd, It will not be helpful if you become angry. You must listen to me carefully and do what I tell you. Do you understand?"

"No! I don't understand anything you're saying, and I don't care. You're a scammer and a lowlife. I'm hanging up right now."

I started to click off but hesitated when he said, "Wait, good sir. Check your computer and you will see why I am calling."

My heart skipped a beat. My computer was my lifeline to the world—to my livelihood. The possibility of a break-in or corruption was enough to get my attention. "What have you done?" I yelled.

His voice took a more menacing direction. "Turn on your computer, Mr. Ackroyd."

I ran to the dining room table where I did my work and booted up. A moment later I was logged on and everything looked normal. I opened a document I was currently working on—no problem. "What are you talking about?" I said into the phone, my irritation at this remote voice somewhat tempered by my confusion at finding nothing amiss.

"Now watch," the man called George said in a stone-cold voice.

Suddenly the computer screen went black.

"What did you do?" I cried out, as if he were in the room with me.

"Mr. Ackroyd? Now will you listen to what I say?"

I was stunned by the sudden reality that I was the victim of a hacker, a hacker who intended to hold me ransom by threatening my livelihood. "What do you want?"

"Only to help you. To remove the virus contaminating your computer. It was transferred from your mother's system by her email. My job as a Microsoft Technical Support Specialist is to restore your computer to how it was before the attack."

Ignoring what he was telling me, I asked, "Why did you mention my mother's bank account?"

"The virus started with her computer. I was able to decontaminate it only a little while ago. Now I will clean your system, like I did hers."

"What about her bank account? What did you do?"

"She was confused about how to pay for my service, so I had to help her. I accessed her account and took my payment."

"You stole from her, didn't you? You bastard son-of-a-bitch. How did you get into her account?"

"Please Mr. Ackroyd, language like that in not necessary. If you persist, I will have to tell my supervisor. Your sweet mother gave me remote access to her computer. Her passwords were in a file named 'Passwords.' The same kind of remote access is what you have to give me now so I can fix your computer."

"Turn my computer back on," I screamed. I flinched at the feeling of blood pulsing in my neck and temples.

"I am so sorry, Mr. Ackroyd, but I can't do that. First, you have to pay me."

His brazen demand finally brought me to my senses. "I'm not paying you anything," I spat out before abruptly ending the call, not bothering to tell him there was no access to my bank account from my computer. I figured my tech consultant could get rid of whatever this swindler had planted in my computer, so I would call him first thing in the morning. But right then, I needed to find out what he'd done to my mother. I assumed she must still be awake if he got into her system only a little while back. When I called her, she answered on the second ring.

"Mom. It's me, Alex."

"Oh, Alex. I'm so glad it's you. I wanted to call but didn't want to wake you up." Her voice was wavering. "My computer had a virus, but a nice man from Microsoft fixed it. But now it won't turn on. I don't know what to do."

"Mom! It's the middle of the night. Go back to bed. We'll deal with it in the morning." At that moment I didn't want to bring up the scam or her bank account—she was already worried and confused enough. After a few minutes of continued reassurance, she agreed to go back to bed and I told her good night.

"Sweet dreams, honey," she said before the line went dead.

To be continued . . .

Undercover Agent - Episode Ten

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Karla found Rosa at the firepit adding wild mushrooms to a soup pot resting on a bed of glowing coals. Karla set two sacks of vegetables on the ground. "Here's some stuff for the larder from vendors at the farmers' market."

Rosa glanced at the bags. "Thanks. I'll use them for a stew tomorrow. Maybe someone'll bring in some meat."

"I'll see what I can do. I'm gonna be on the streets in the morning."

"Beef, if you can manage it. Oh, yeah. Baku was looking for you a while ago."

"Is he still around?"

"He said he was goin' to the river. I don't think he's come back."

*          *          *

 Karla found Baku sitting in his regular spot on a steep bank overlooking the slow-flowing Willamette. "Rosa said you were looking for me. What's up?"

"Zakim wants to see you."

"How am I supposed to get there? It's on the other side of town."

"Jamal's parked on Lombard—at that strip mall where the laundromat is."

"I'll go after Rosa's soup's ready. I gotta eat something."

"He said as soon as you can get there."

"Did he say why?"

"He don't tell me nothin'. Not like he does you."

"Are you coming with me?"

"He didn't tell me to, so I guess not."

*          *          *

 Twenty minutes later Karla approached Jamal's van. Two men got out —Jamal on the driver's side, Zakim's bodyguard, Benny, on the passenger side. She didn't like seeing Benny and knew it wasn't a good sign. Before she could get away by ducking behind the adult video shop next to the laundromat, Benny yelled, "Don't make me chase you. Get over here."

"Karla limped to where Benny stood waiting. "Must be important if Zakim sent you to fetch a cripple lady like me when Jamal could have done it on his own."

Benny ignored her comment and opened the side door. "Get in."

Karla tossed in her walking stick and scrambled after it. She noticed that the inside handle had been removed, same for the rear door.

Since there were no back seats, she sat on the floor with her back against the driver-side wall. After they were under way, she scooted close to Jamal's seat. "Jamal. What's going on?"

Benny spun around. "Shut up. Get back there," nodding toward the back of the space.

Jamal glanced at her in the rear view mirror and their eyes locked for a second, but he said nothing.

*          *          *

 A few moments after the van pulled into the backlot and up to the loading dock behind Zakim's warehouse, the side door flew open and Benny said, "Get out," then moved back from the door. After Karla got out, Benny grabbed at her arm. Karla jerked away and stepped back a pace. Benny raised his hand to hit her, but Jamal jumped in front of him. "No need for that. She won't be no trouble."

Benny started to say something but didn’t when he saw the steel in Jamal's eyes, a look he'd not seen before. He also saw how Jamal stood with one foot forward, his shoulders turned at a slight angle, and his hands held in loose fists at chest-level. He was as tall as Jamal, but thirty pounds lighter and twenty years older. "Back off, Brother. No problem." He turned to Karla. "I'm gonna take you to Zakim."

Karla followed Benny up to the dock, her walking stick clanging on the metal steps. They went through an entrance next to a closed overhead cargo door and down a long hall, past two doors, then stopped before one painted red. Benny knocked four times and a second later a buzzer went off. He turned the handle and pushed the door open to reveal an office with a large desk, some filing cabinets, and a single chair in front of the desk. Zakim sat behind it like a king on his throne.

Following Benny's command, Karla sat in the chair. After Benny left the room, in a stone-cold voice Zakim said, "I know it was you who set us up. What else have you told them?"

If Karla was scared, she didn't show it. "It wasn't me. I'm on your side, remember?"

"Cut the crap. One way or the other, you're gonna tell me everything. Make it easy on yourself."

Karla knew from his controlled calm and unwavering gaze that he was convinced he was right and would be unrelenting in learning the truth. "Why do you think it was me?"

"Gretchen's been keeping track of what you been up to. She saw you put something under that barrel where you leave messages—the night of the delivery. Before she could get it, a man did. She followed him to his cop car. That's why I know it was you."

"I left a message there, like I always do. If I didn't, they'd suspect something was wrong. But I didn't tell them about the girls being transferred that night."

"Bullshit. Jack found a locator chip in the weeds by the trailer today. You must a tossed it away when you went in to get whatever it was you left behind.

"I didn't—"

Zakim didn't let her finish. "Benny!" he yelled, then buzzed the door. When Benny came in, Zakim said, "Take this bitch outta here and get the truth out of her."

Before Karla could say anything, Benny grabbed her by the hair and jerked her out of the chair. "Let's go You don't wanna be late for our appointment." She clutched her walking stick as he marched her through the doorway into the hall. When Benny opened the last of several more doors and shoved her into the room, he was surprised to see Jamal. "Wadda you doin' in here?"

Jamal took a step toward Benny. "Let her go. She's coming with me."

Benny pushed Karla aside and took a six-inch switchblade from his pocket and clicked it open. "You stupid son of a bitch. Get the hell out of here. This ain't none of your business."

Jamal ignored the knife and moved to where Karla stood near the door. "I'm leaving all right . . . and so is she."

Holding the knife in front of him, Benny stepped toward Jamal. Anticipating what was coming, Jamal threw a punch at Benny. Benny ducked, blocked Jamal's next swing, then plunged the knife into Jamal's belly. He sliced the blade sideways a couple of times before pulling it out. Jamal grunted and staggered backwards, then dropped to the floor. When Benny turned toward Karla, he doubled over when Karla, holding her walking stick like a shovel, rammed it into his groin. Excruciating pain shot through his body like an electric shock, and just as paralyzing. Before he could recover, she smashed the cane on top of his head. Then, holding it like a baseball bat, she delivered a cracking blow to the side of his skull, landing it above his ear and opening a long gash. He collapsed onto his side and stayed down, not moving, or breathing.

She checked Jamal's pulse, gently closed his eyes, then snatched his phone from his coat pocket. Wanting to get away from the bodies, she stepped into the hall and pulled the door shut behind her. She knew she had to call Tabor, but without Zakim hearing. She opened one of the other doors and entered a long room. The first thing she saw was a bench with half a dozen automatic rifles on it. Looking around, she saw wooden crates stacked along a wall. Then she noticed a bunch of pistols on another bench, and more wooden crates underneath. She knew at once that this is what the feds needed to take down Zakimsolid evidence of gun trafficking

*        *        *

Agent James was waiting for his burger and shake at Burgerville when his phone buzzed. He answered at once when he saw Tabor's number in the caller ID window.

"Karla's in trouble. She's at Zakim's. We gotta go in."

"Slow down. What's going on?"

"She just called. One of Zakim's guys was gonna rough her up, but another guy got himself killed when he tried to intervene. Then Karla killed the one who killed him—with her cane like she did the mafia guy. Then she found a room full of guns. Zakim doesn't know any of this. She thinks he's still in his office.

"How many others are there?"

"She hasn't seen anybody else, but she didn't know for sure."

"I'll call in a SWAT team. I'll meet you there as soon as I can . . . down the block . . . where that welding shop is. I'm on my way. Cancel that order," he yelled at the cashier as he ran out the door.

*        *        *

 After Karla ended the call to Tabor, she looked around the room she was in and noticed another door in the far corner. Hoping it might lead to a way out of the building and escape without having to pass Zakim's office, she opened it cautiously and peered into the dark interior. She found a wall switch and turned on the overhead light. She was stunned by what she saw—bundles of cash stacked on shelves lining two of the walls. There were packets of twenties, fifties, and hundreds, banded in what she estimated to be at least fifty bills in each, maybe more. There was no other door and no windows.

She hesitated for a few seconds, then grabbed a duffel bag off a nearby table and started stuffing bricks of the bills into it. She noticed that $10,000 was written on the band around the ones with hundreds. She knew she wouldn't be able to take all of it but was determined to get as much as she could. When the bag was full, mostly with hundreds, but also some fifties and twenties, she returned to the gun room and cracked open the door enough to peek into the hall. There was no one there, and she heard no sounds. With her cane in one hand and the heavy bag in the other, she headed toward the door to the loading dock. She struggled with the weight and concentrated on being as quiet as possible.

When she got to where Zakim's office was, the door was ajar. She stopped, afraid of being seen as she passed by. She heard him talking, but with short pauses, obviously on the phone. He sounded excited.

"How many are there?" A few seconds later, apparently on a different call she heard Zakim say, "Jack! Seymore just told me a bunch of feds are by the welding shop. Yeah, like they're waiting for something—or somebody. I think we're gonna get raided. We gotta get outta here. Now! Pack up as much money as you can. Get Benny, shoot the woman. I'll meet you two out back in a couple of minutes."

Karla heard noises from Zakim's office, like a laptop being slammed shut, and then papers, or files, being thrown into a bag or case of some kind. Then a chair scraping the floor and footsteps approaching the door. She looked around and saw another door a few feet behind her. She stepped back, set the satchel down, opened the door, grabbed the money, and got into the room just as Zakim came out of his. She didn't have time to close the door all the way, but in his haste Zakim didn't notice.

Karla saw at once that she was in a small bathroom, and that she still had her cane and the duffle bag. She heard Zakim's footsteps receding down the hall toward the loading dock. A moment later, she heard another set of footsteps racing along the hall, possibly toward the room with the money. Must be Jack, she thought. But at that point, she didn't care, she just wanted to get away—before Agent James and his guys and Captain Tabor got there. Let them pick up the pieces—the guns, the money stacked on those shelves, whatever was stashed in the other rooms. Let them catch Zakim, and Jack, sort out the two bodies, Benny and Jamal, they'd deal with all of it without her. She just wanted to get away—with her bag of money, money she'd earned—fair and square.

She looked around the room and immediately saw it—a window covered by a draw-down shade. She discovered that it looked out on a narrow, fenced-in side yard containing scattered debris and trash barrels. When she unlatched and tried to open the window, it gave enough to get her cane under it and pry it up high enough to crawl out. She punched her cane through the screen, tossed out the bag and walking stick, then squeezed through head-first, plopping onto the wet ground without hurting herself. There was no one in sight, although she heard heavy boot steps and men barking orders from around the far corner. Then she heard Zakim yell something, then a barrage of gunshots, more orders being barked, and then silence.

The fence was too high to climb, especially with the heavy bag. If she was going to get away with the money, she would have to get past the loading dock. She edged along the building wall, listening for sounds of the men—it was still quiet. They must be inside, she thought, and peeked around the corner. There was no one there, just several SUVs, two police cars, and the SWAT team minibus. She didn't see anyone near the vehicles or the gate. This was her chance—she stepped around the corner and headed toward the street.

"Stop! Put down the bag and the stick. Get on the ground."

She glanced to where the voice came from and saw a man on the loading dock pointing an automatic rifle at her. Yellow letters across his Kevlar vest said FBI.

"On the ground," he yelled again.

Karla dropped the bag and started to kneel down, but suddenly froze in place when Captain Tabor came out of the door and saw what was happening.

 "She's one of ours," Tabor yelled at the FBI guy.

The FBI guy gave Tabor a long look, then lowered his gun and said, "Who is she?"

"She's FBI, undercover. I gotta get her outta here so she won't be identified."

The SWAT guy stared at Tabor for a moment, then lowered his rifle and said, "All right."

Tabor scrambled down the steps and told Karla to come with him. She picked up the bag and followed him past two bloody bodies lying near Jack's SUV. When she glanced at them, she saw it was Zakim and Jack.

A few seconds later they were at Tabor's car. "What's in the bag?" he asked after she put it on the back seat.

"Personal stuff." She got into the front seat and didn't say anything else until Tabor pulled out of the lot, made a couple of turns, and headed north toward the freeway.

"Personal stuff? Like what?" he asked.

"You know—clothes . . . and other stuff. Nothing you'd be interested in."

"You sure?"

Karla looked at him, and he glanced at her, their eyes making direct contact. "Sure as sure can be," she said, then, suppressing a smile, turned away. "Where are we going?".

"FBI headquarters. Marx wants to debrief you, get your statement."

"Now? Can't she do it later? Like tomorrow?"

"What's wrong with now? You got something you gotta do?"

Before Karla could answer, Tabor's phone buzzed. "Yeah?" he answered. He glanced at Karla while listening to whomever it was that called. Then, "I'm with her now. On our way to see Marx for a debriefing. We'll be there in about half an hour." He ended the call, then said, "That was James. He's gonna be at Zakim's warehouse for a while. They found lot s of stuff to occupy them. Bodies, money, guns, dope, computers, and files. A real treasure."

Karla was quiet for a while, then said, "Before we see Marx, I need to stop by a bank in Hollywood. The one across the street from the furniture store."

"Why?" Tabor asked.

"I want to leave this stuff with a friend who works there. I don't want to take it to the camp. Stuff gets stolen there sometimes."

Tabor shook his head, then said, "A bank won't take that much . . .  personal stuff . . . they have to report anything over $10,000 to the government. Would you want that?"

Karla didn't say anything for a while, then, "Okay. Then I need a storage locker."

"Are you sure you want to do this? What about me? You're putting me in a tough position."

Without hesitation, Karla said, "Yes, I'm sure. I earned it. It won't be missed, anyway. As far as you and being in a tough position, you don't have any idea what's in that bag. And I'm not gonna tell you, either. As far as you know, it clothing I had at Zakim's for when I had to change into something more fitting to the occasion."

"Karla—"

"I told you . . . I'm sure. Sure as sure can be. So drop it."

Tabor drove on in silence for a while, maneuvering through the building afternoon traffic. Finally, he glanced at Karla and said, "All right. I don't like it, but we'll do it your way. There's a self-storage place on Northeast Halsey, not that much out of our way."

"Thanks."

They continued on, neither one of them saying anything. Fifteen minutes later Tabor pulled into a fenced-in parking lot of a self-storage complex and Karla went into the business office, alone. She took the duffel bag with her.

Twenty minutes later they were back on their way to FBI headquarters. Karla was the first to break their uncomfortable silence. "You wanna get something to eat after this thing with Marx is done?'

"Thanks for asking, but I need to get home. Tonight's my wife's book club and I gotta baby sit."

"You have a baby?"

"Two teen-age daughters. I guess I'm old fashion, but I'd rather not leave them alone."

"No problem. I wouldn't mind getting back to the camp, anyway. Rosie's cooking's as good as most restaurants. I want to see about Baku, too. See if he's been arrested. You can drop me off at that wine shop near the Max station in Hollywood. I'm gonna treat my fellow campers to some high-end wine for a change. I've always wondered what the good stuff tastes like."

Tabor gave Karla a sly look and said, "Well. from now on you'll be able to drink all the expensive wine you want with that stash of so-called personal stuff. I suppose you'll be leaving the street life too, right?"

Karla didn't answer for a while, just stared out the passenger window at the congestion of cars and trucks and at the neighborhoods they were then passing by. Finally, she said, "It depends on what Chief Marx has to say."

"What Marx has to say? What do you mean?"

"Maybe she'll want me to stay on. After all, you can't deny I helped bring down a crook you hotshot weren't able to get by yourselves. There's gotta be more crooks out there she'd like to bring down, don't you think? If I'm gonna be an undercover agent whose supposed to be a discarded, harmless homeless woman lost in the shadows of anonymity, then I'd better be living that life, right?"

"You mean you'd stay on with the FBI? You'd risk your life again? You were nearly killed by those bastards. Next time you might not be so lucky."

"I don't need luck when you've got my back. You were in my corner this time, you'd be there again, wouldn't you?"

"Karla! You're talking crazy. You're not trained for this kind of work. This thing with Zakim was a fluke. Next time could be a lot worse—like getting killed."

"That is a good point, Tabor. Maybe I' can convince Marx to get me some training. It would be nice to know how to defend myself with something besides my walking stick. Although you'll have to admit, I haven't done too bad with that as my only weapon, have I?"

"Karla! God damn it. I'm serious. This is a crazy idea."

"I'm serious, too. And it's not a crazy idea. I did something worthwhile for the first time in my life, and I'm proud of what I did. And another thing. I like living the way I do. Few responsibilities to weigh me down, friends who accept me as I am, and a cozy tent and warm sleeping bag. So, get off your high horse and let me be who I am. Who I wanna go on being. Okay?"

Tabor started to say something, but then realized they'd arrived at the FBI complex security booth.

"Tabor and Hammer to see Marx," he said to the guard.

"She's expecting you, Captain Tabor. You can park over there," the guard said, pointing toward a visitors' spot near the main entrance.

Five minutes later they were ushered into Marx's office rather than into the conference room they had been in during the previous visit.

Marx stood and walked around her desk to meet Karla and Tabor. "Miss Hammer. It's nice to see you again. We have a lot to talk about. Hello, Captain Tabor."

"I was thinking the same thing," Karla said as she shook Marx's outstretched hand.

Marx pointed at the couch. "Please, make yourselves comfortable. Would you like anything to drink?"

Tabor started to say something, but Karla jumped in. "No thanks. I don't have much time right now, so let's just get down to business."

Marx arched her eyebrows, obviously taken aback by Karla's abruptness. "I suppose you're referring to the twenty-five thousand dollar payment we owe you."

"That's part of it."

"Part of it? What's the other part?"

"A job. And some training. That's the other part of it. The part we need to talk about,"

The End

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.

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