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Undercover Agent - Episode Six


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

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

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

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

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

*          *         *

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

“What’s up?” James asked.

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

“Maybe. Whaddya think we should do?”

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

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

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

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

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

*          *         *

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

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

“I’m doin’ just fine. Don’t worry.”

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

“I’ll let you know when I do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through Baku. I used his phone.”

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

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

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

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

“How the hell you gonna do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *         *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here in Portland?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s our plan for tomorrow?”

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

*          *         *

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

*          *         *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *         *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *         *

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

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

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

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

Undercover Agent - Episode Five


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

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

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


*          *          *


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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


*          *          *


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

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

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

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


*          *          *


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

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

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

“Yes?” she said in a flat voice.

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

“Hello, Zakim,” Karla answered.

“Who are you?” Where’s Baku?”

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

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

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

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

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


*          *          *


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Burgers and fries,” she replied.

“You want something?” he asked Karla.

“That sounds good,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s that?”

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

“You got a phone?”


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

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

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

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

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

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


Undercover Agent - Episode Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Could be lots of things.”

“Like what?”

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

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

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

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


*          *          *


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


*         *         *


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

“Welcome home, Bro,” someone said.

“Where you been?” someone else asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you do for him?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that what you were doing in Seattle?”

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

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

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


Undercover Agent - Episode Three


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

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

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

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

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


*         *         *


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

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

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

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

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

“What’s he up to?” Karla asked.

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

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

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

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

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

*         *         *


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


*         *         *


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did they get all of it?”

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

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

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

‘How’d you get back to the camp?”

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

“Zakim? Who’s he?”

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

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

“Yeah, it would’a been.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued . . .

Undercover Agent - Episode Two

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

“Sure,” Karla said.

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

“Yeah, we were lucky,” Tabor replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right. A job.”

“What kinda job?” Karla asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tabor scrambled out and followed her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s it to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you living on the streets?”

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

“What are you doing here in Hollywood?”

“Why all the questions?”

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

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

“Opportunities? For what?” she asked.

“None of your business.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, like who?”

“Other gangs, that’s all.”

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

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

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

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

Undercover Agent - Episode One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There might be. I’ll check.”

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

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

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

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

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


Humphreys Peak


Humphreys Peak, eleven miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona, at 12,637 feet is the highest point in the state. It is one of six mountaintops in the San Francisco Peaks range and lies a little north of its 12,356-foot sister crest, Agassiz Peak. The Humphreys Peak summit is reached by hiking the 4.8 mile Humphreys Trail that originates at the Snowbowl ski resort. The hike’s hazards are well known and include a steep trail strewn with loose rocks, above average risk of lightning strikes, winter avalanches, and unpredictable weather, including sudden heavy snowstorms.

This was the peak my friend John and I decided to climb one early April weekend in 1962 when we were graduate students at Arizona State University. We had been climbing together since 1958 and had done a lot of hiking and free-style rock climbing around the Valley of the Sun and surrounding mountains. Challenging climbs like Pinnacle Peak and Four Peaks honed our skills and kept us in reasonably good physical condition. We were confident—perhaps overconfident—we could handle just about any climbing challenge that came our way. Out of options for climbs in the immediate area, we figured it was time to take on the big daddy of Arizona mountains, Humphreys Peak.

We left Tempe around 4 a.m. for the hundred and sixty-mile drive to the Flagstaff Snowbowl and got there around seven. The parking lot was nearly empty (the ski lifts were already shut down for the season) and the sky was crystal clear. The forecast was for cool temperatures during the rest of the day with a fifty-percent chance of rain. We had our rain gear, however, and didn’t let the possibility of a little drizzle deter us from adding another climb to our tally.

After a breakfast of boiled eggs and doughnuts, we headed out, confident we would summit before noon, descend leisurely back to the Snowbowl by midafternoon, and then get back to Tempe for a celebratory dinner. Being in decent shape, the steepness of the trail was no big deal. We made good time along switchbacks taking us east through dense forests where stretches of shaded trail were sporadically covered with patches of snow. We weren’t even breathing hard when we reached timberline at the midpoint of the Agassiz Saddle (the ridge connecting Agassiz Peak with Humphreys) at an elevation of 12,000 feet. But shortly after we emerged from the forest into the open Alpine tundra, the weather suddenly changed. Low dark clouds appeared out of nowhere and the gentle breeze that had been pleasingly cool became a brisk, cold wind. We had only a short distance to go along the trail that ran north just under the west side of the ridge for a mile and a quarter to the peak. Since no rain or snow had materialized, and our parkas provided adequate protection against the wind, we ignored tales and warnings of sudden snow storms and forged ahead. But before we knew it, we were fighting a strengthening west wind as we scrambled over and around boulders and hard-crusted snow drifts that obstructed our progress and slowed us down.   

The amount and depth of snow on the trail increased as we got closer to the summit, making it difficult to keep going at the pace we had maintained earlier. Then, as if the peak had decided it didn’t want intruders that day, the weather abruptly changed again. At first it was tiny wind-driven, sleet-like particles that stung our faces, then after a few minutes they turned into heavy, wet flakes and we found ourselves in a full-blown blizzard. Still, we persisted, unwilling to entertain the thought of defeat.

Our destination loomed in the near-whiteout as a massive, indistinct dark form just ahead of us, like a menacing specter drawing us on with unexplainable magnetic power. Between dogged determination and disregard for common sense, we finally made it to the top. But when we reached the rockpile that denoted the highest point, swirling dense mist and thick snowfall obliterated the panoramic view that usually rewards Humphreys Peak climbers. With ferocious wind spinning around the peak we had no desire to linger. After a few minutes of wandering aimlessly around the summit savoring our victory, we agreed to head back down but immediately disagreed about which direction to take. The snowfall had buried our tracks, so we couldn’t simply retrace our trek to the summit by following them. This decision—which direction to start our descent—was the critical moment of what was supposed to be a simple “walk-up.” As it turned out, that little walk-up wasn’t quite that simple.

Anxious to get off the summit, John led off in what he was sure was south—the way back to the route along the west side of the ridge and on to the forest trail. “Wait!” I yelled over the howling maelstrom. “It’s this way,” pointing in the opposite direction.

“No, it’s not,” he yelled back, “the wind was from our left when we approached the peak. We need it to our right to get back to the ridge trail.” I didn’t argue with his reasoning—he was always good with directions—although I still had misgivings. Nevertheless, unable to justify objection to his confident assertion, and with heavy cloud cover and snowfall blocking the sun and distant landmarks that normally would have given us bearings, I followed, ignoring the shadow of doubt lingering in a corner of my mind.

By the time we got off the summit and to where the Agassiz Saddle trail should have been we were struggling knee-deep through a combination of old and new snow. The temperature was continuing to drop, and the strong wind had become a raging, erratic gale. As we struggled desperately to keep going, it quickly became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to locate the actual trail since the new snow was covering the landscape with a uniform layer of featureless, white camouflage. Not only that, the by then total whiteout prevented us from seeing what lay ahead, whether the trail leveled out, as it should if it paralleled the ridge, or whether the slope continued downward, which, if it did, would be a severe problem. Unable to remain where we were because of the rapidly deteriorating weather, we blindly forged ahead, assuming we were heading southwest as we continued downhill.

When we stopped after a while to catch our breath, John said, “If we missed the ridge trail, we’ll keep going until we reach timberline, then turn left. We should find the forest trail as we get further south, where it comes out of the woods.” I sensed a level of concern from the look on his face belying the confidence projected by his statement.

“If worse comes to worse, and we don’t find the trail,” I said, “we’ll keep going two or three miles southwest until we reach the paved access road to the ski bowl. If we’re too far east of that road, we’ll eventually hit Route 180 in another mile or so. “It would take a while, but at least it’s a sure thing.”

John nodded, wiped snow from his face with his wet glove, and plunged ahead. I followed for a time, then took my turn as lead to forge through the deepening snow.

Several hours later we were pretty far down the wooded slope and in near darkness, which had come on earlier than usual because of the heavy cloud cover. The temperature had dropped further, and it was still snowing, but at least the wind wasn’t as strong because of the dense Engelman spruce and bristlecone pine forest we found ourselves surrounded by. The slope we were descending was steeper than it should have been if we were on the southwestern side of the mountain as John had confidently claimed we were. The slope was also cluttered with tree fall and boulders, both of which increased the difficulty of the descent and slowed our progress to a near-crawl.

When we took a break under a huge spruce, which provided a little relief from the falling snow, I said, “I think we screwed up when we left the summit.” It had come to me in a flash of clarity. The wind had been swirling around the peak in a tornado-like vortex, which, perhaps disoriented by the velocity of the wildly fluctuating wind and a total lack of visibility, we didn’t fully realize at the time. So, when we left the summit—supposedly back the way we came—we expected the wind to be our right, which would have been from the west. That was how we chose the way down. But because the wind was circling around the summit, when it hit us from the right we had set off 180 degrees opposite from the direction we should have taken. We had mistakenly headed off the summit due north, toward the Kiabab National Forest area with nothing but miles of dense woods, then desolate high desert and a few isolated Indian villages for sixty-five miles, all the way to the Grand Canyon. As a result of this lapse of common sense, instead of being on our way back to Tempe listening to rock and roll in a warm car, we were in a raging snow storm in a nearly pitch-dark wild woodland, halfway down a steep slope cluttered with forest debris that led nowhere —cold, wet, hungry, and exhausted.

“So, what are we gonna do?” John asked, worry bordering on panic having replaced his usual confidence.

“We have to keep going in this direction. To a fire road that runs east-west connecting Route 89 to Route 180. If we can find it, it’ll take us west to 180 and then south to the road to the Snowbowl,” I answered after picturing a map of the area in my head.

“How far would that be?” John asked, his worry evident from the quiver in his voice.

“From where I think we are now, I’d say about twenty miles.”

“Damn! That’s a long way. That’ll take twelve hours or more with all this snow. Maybe longer,” John replied.

“It’s hell of a lot closer than the Grand Canyon,” I said, then took off my daypack and got out the last two candy bars and handed one to John. “Keep a lookout for the fire road. It might be hard to recognize with this snow cover,” I said when we started out after finishing the Snickers.

After another few hours of scrambling down what seemed like nature’s version of a diabolic obstacle course, the slope gradually leveled off a bit. After what must have been a quarter of a mile later, we came to a narrow, treeless strip of snow that appeared to be running east west, or, from our perspective anyway, from right to left.

In the lead at that point, I yelled back to John, “That’s gotta be the fire road.” Even in the semi-darkness the smooth snow surface of the track cutting through the forest glowed like a silver ribbon on a dark cloth. It had to be the road we so desperately sought.

“Yeah,” he agreed as he came up next to me, breathing hard, and like me, happy to take a break from wading through deep snow. He scanned the view in front of us and said, “Yeah. That must be it all right.”

That was the moment we both knew we were going to be okay. Sure, we had a twenty-something-mile hike in the middle of the night in a nasty snow storm in a remote wilderness area, but compared to dying, that was an acceptable option.

The long slog back to civilization was without incident. But it goes without saying that there were times when we were so exhausted we had to stop to regain enough strength to start up again. But we always found the strength, and we never for a minute considered the alternative—giving up and letting the cold take us into the bliss of peaceful sleep. Instead, we drifted in and out of half-consciousness as we trudged along the fire road, oblivious to the absurdity of the situation.

Even though exhausted, we were ecstatic when we finally made it to the Rt. 180 junction, confirming that we really were on the right way to the Snowbowl. But we were disappointed that there were no fresh tire tracks—our hopes of a ride were dashed by the long stretch of unbroken snow. Not surprising, though. Who in their right mind would be traveling this unplowed, one-lane highway through unpopulated back-country in the middle of the night during a brutal snowstorm? Obviously, no one.

We pushed on, hiking down the middle of the highway, happy not having to maneuver around trees, logs, stumps, branches and every other hinderance hiding under the forest snow cover. But it was still arduous work, especially as tired as we were. As the road shifted from what we figured was due south to southeast, the snow gradually let up and turned into a light rain, then into a persistent drizzle. On we went, wet, cold, weaker with every mile, with every step. We didn’t talk, we barely noticed dawn breaking in the east, and we almost overlooked the sign to the Snowbowl. “That’s it,” I cried when I happened to lift my eyes from patches of blacktop from which by then the rain had cleared away much of the snow.

The road to the Snowbowl was easy to hike and we got to the parking lot in what seemed like an hour later, and finally to John’s car, to our salvation.

“What time is it?” I yelled from where I was wiping crusty snow off the windshield when John started up the car.

Seven-thirty,” he said, glancing at the dashboard clock. “Twenty-four hours after we started this goddamn adventure,” his tired grin saying everything that needed to be said.

Our next thought was breakfast. Half an hour later we pulled into the parking lot of a busy Rt. 66 diner. Before we got out of the car, I said, “After breakfast, let’s stop at the sporting goods store and buy a compass. 

John let out a long sigh, then said, “Why the hell do we need a compass? You can always depend on me for directions.”

Chuckling, I said, “I’m gonna have four pancakes, three eggs, bacon and hash browns,” as I unbuckled the seat belt and reached for the door handle.

An Old Ice Ax


Longs Peak, May 1971

With great caution we approached the narrow top-end of the steep permanent snowfield called The Dove. Four of us were roped in line—I was last. With each step on the crusty snow in the terrain alongside the main body of the field, Chuck, the lead climber, probed the surface in front of him with his long-handled ice ax to test the firmness and consistency of the snow pack. Finally, we reached the point where a sheer, smooth rock wall directly in front of us prevented further ascent on this side of the narrow tongue, so we would have to cross the icy upper tip.

The north chimney route that would take us to the 14,259-foot summit was on the other side of fifty feet of near vertical smooth ice stretching off to our left. This was the most dangerous part of the climb, and each of us knew it. Steep ice can be deceptive, especially on a day when bright sunlight is streaming down from a cloudless sky to warm the surface to a point at which it turns a little soft.We had been climbing up the boulder-strewn right-hand edge of the long snowfield for the last hour to gain 3500 feet in altitude. This brought us to about a thousand feet shy of our destination. We were determined to reach the summit early enough to make it back down before dark. Standing at the edge of the field, Chuck yelled over his shoulder. “I'm gonna cut steps. Be ready with your axes to stem a fall if anybody slips. Lean in a little, but not too much. We'll stay roped.”

But as Chuck started to hack the first foothold, I noticed a beat-up ice ax jammed into in a crack about seventy-five feet up the vertical rock face looming above us.

“Hey,” I called out. “Look at that ax up there. Someone must have gotten stuck. Probably didn't have any pitons and had to use his ax to anchor a rope to rappel down. It probably saved his life. Looks like it's been there a while. It'd make a great souvenir.”

“Yeah,” John, the guy roped in front of me, said. “But nobody would be dumb enough to try to retrieve it. Too dangerous a climb. Not that many handholds, and it’s just about sheer vertical,”.

“I've free-climbed worse than that. I’m gonna go up and get it.”

“Come on, man, don't be stupid,” John said. “Besides, we can't afford the time to wait for you. We gotta get to the summit.”

“You're right. I'll un-rope, climb up and get the ax, then catch up with you guys on the other side,” I said as I started to untie.

Chuck didn't like this departure from standard practice but was in no position to do anything about it. My three companions, still roped, spent the next 45 minutes slowly and carefully traversing the ice while I free-climbed the face. I was a half-decent climber, but still had to call on every bit of skill I had to make it all the way up. My closest call was balancing in a tenuous three-point position while I pulled the ax out of the crack with my free hand, an effort that almost resulted in me falling backwards off the one-inch rock nub on which my feet rested when the ax suddenly came free. But I held on and made it back down to where I had left my pack at the edge of the ice that I would now have to negotiate on my own. I strapped the ice ax I had been using before retrieving the old one from the rock face onto the side of my pack, hoisted the pack onto my back, and with the rescued ax in hand, prepared to rejoin the others.

By then the others were safely past the ice and inching along a narrow ledge leading to the chimney base when I called out that I was coming across. “I'll catch up at the chimney and follow you to the top.”

I took the first step onto the steep sheet of ice, gently placing my right boot into the foot hold that Chuck had cut earlier.  As I brought my left foot forward toward the next foothold, my full body weight now on the ice, the side of the first cut suddenly gave way and I shot downward like a launched rocket. I was essentially in feet-first free-fall. My pack had swung around and was raking the ice surface at high speed. Its keel-like effect prevented me from turning over into a position that would allow me to stab the sharp pick head of the old ax into the hard ice. I knew I had to stop before hitting the moraine at the bottom of the snow field over 3000 feet below. If I didn't I'd be pulverized instantly by the massive rock maze I’d enter at high speed.

My only chance of surviving would be to flip onto my side, or even better, my chest. I had to get into position to use the ax as a drag to slow down, or even stop if possible. At that high speed and angle I couldn't roll off my back, and I was gaining speed rapidly. Seconds passed like minutes. My brain was on auto-pilot, working hard to figure out how to do what I had to do. I didn't want to die. Especially like this. Another tragic but stupid mountain climbing accident. Then I sensed that the incline was beginning to level out just a little. Maybe enough to slow my slide so I could turn over. I tried harder, twisting violently to one side, then back to the other, rocking like a hobby horse, only sideways.

Finally, I made it over onto my left side and quickly swung the ax down as hard as I could. The pick head jabbed into the hard surface about three inches, the momentum and angle of my slide having added force to my downward thrust. I called up every bit of energy I could muster to hold the ax in position as it dug a narrow groove in the surface, throwing up a bright wake of air-born crystal ice glittering in the bright sunlight. I could tell at once that I was slowing. Only slightly at first, then gradually more as the seconds flew by. At last I came to a complete stop. I lay still where I had come to rest, unable to move. I was spent. After a few moments, I managed to raise my head and look around. I was shocked by what I saw. My boots were three feet from the moraine where big boulders and broken off hunks of jagged rock had been waiting.

My strength slowly returned. I stood up and carefully made my way to the edge of the snow field and looked up to where my companions should be. There they were, looking down at me, one with binoculars held up to his eyes. I waved. All three of them waved back. Then I remembered the weathered ice ax I still held onto and pulled it close to my chest. I held it there for a moment; the ax that had just saved its second life. Then I started the climb back up the mountain, determined to reach the summit with my climbing buddies.

Hijinks Under Ground: Episode Eleven


Bluefield, West Virginia, Sunday, 7:15 a.m.

“I hope it’s the old lady and her little brown girlfriend. I’d like to rip their heads off,” Klara said with a thick accent, the first words she’d spoken since arriving at the abandoned mine. Klara grabbed their weapons, handed an AR-15 to Nadya, and followed her through the door and along the side of the building to a six-foot-high stack of wooden crates. Concealed behind the stack, they had a clear view of the broad, empty lot all the way to the gate as well as the entrance to the elevator building.

Nadya scanned the area carefully, then said, “If there’s anybody out there, they’d probably try to get to the elevator. We’ll stay here for a while and see what happens.”

A little later, Klara edged closer to Nadya and said, “We’ve been here fifteen minutes. There’s nothing happening out there. If there is anyone here, and if they want to get to the elevator, they’re not gonna march down the middle of this lot. I’m gonna move over by the fence and see what’s going on there.”

Nadya watched as Klara darted across the empty space and take a position in front of a long equipment shed.

Staying close behind the flat-roofed sheds spaced along the fence line, Lena and Zula crept silently toward a high pile of gravel a hundred yards ahead of them, Suddenly Zeus turned back to where they had come from and growled. Zula spun around to look behind her and was propelled backwards by two quick shots that hit her in the chest. Lena dove for cover and tried to see where the shooter was. She saw a flash of camouflage uniform dart around the corner of one of the sheds. She crawled to where Zula lay in a pile of leaves and felt for her jugular vein. The pulse was strong. Then Zula opened her eyes and sputtered, “Damn. That hurt.”

Lena glanced at the two quarter-sized depressions in the vest and nodded. Yeah, I know what’s that like. You okay?”

“I’m good. At least we know we’ve got company. Did you see anyone?”

“A single shooter. Behind that shed over there,” Lena said, pointing.

“Should we send Zeus?”

“Too big a risk. Whoever it is would see him coming and shoot.”

Zula looked at the shed for a moment, then said, “I’ve grown to like flat roofs,” she said, then strapped her rifle across her back and dashed to the close end of the shed. Feeling a surge of power, she jumped up and grabbed the roof edge and pulled herself up. Keeping low, she crawled toward the far end.  

Lena answered when her phone vibrated—it was Rana. “We heard two shots. What’s happening?”

“We’re okay, thanks to Zula’s Kevlar vest. There’s a shooter over here. Zula’s going after him. I’ll stay put and see what happens. Anything where you are?”

“We’re behind a little tool shed. The elevator house is straight ahead, about thirty yards. There’s a stack of crates and a pickup truck between it and us. We’ll get to the truck and wait until we hear from you.”

When Nadya heard the two shots she realized they were from Klara’s Uzi—she knew that sound from experience. But she was concerned that Klara hadn’t returned yet and wondered what she should do. Then she heard the unmistakable sound of one of more people running fast on hard dirt. She rushed to the far edge of the stack of crates to catch a glimpse of someone ducking behind a red pickup about twenty yards away. “Shit,” she mumbled, and pointed her automatic rifle in that direction.

Crouched behind the northern end of the long equipment shed, Klara was listening for anyone who might be coming from the direction of the person she shot. “A clean kill”, she mumbled. “Now for the other one.” A fleeting image of Nadya telling her not to mumble to herself brought a rare smile to her thin, hard lips. Then she got onto her belly and elbowed her way to the corner and looked around. There was no one in sight. “I’ll go around the other way.” She ran to the front corner and peeked around. Again, no one. She slowly walked along the front of the shed toward the far end, her Uzi pointing ahead. Halfway there, she was suddenly crushed to the ground by a heavy weight landing on her shoulders. The gun flew out of her hands. With the reflexes of a trained martial arts expert, she twisted and turned with lightning speed to throw off whoever it was that dropped onto her from nowhere. An instant later, a cold-blooded Kazakhstani killer and the fearless daughter of a legendary Zulu warrior-chief faced each other across a narrow space of three feet, each intent on killing the other.

A flurry of movement and noise of a scuffle caught Nadya’s attention at the same time it did that of Rana and Jose. Nadya rushed back to the other edge of the stack of crates and aimed her rifle at the two women across the way but was unable to take a shot because of their moving around each other in a tight circle. At the same time, Jose signaled Jupiter to attack, assuming the woman they saw moving along the row of stacked-up crates with a gun would be distracted by the fight between Zula and her adversary. The gambit paid off—Nadya didn’t know what hit her. Before she could comprehend who or what it was, she was face down in the dirt with a growling monster’s jaws clutching the back of her neck. She hated dogs with a deep, black passion, ever since a neighbor’s rabid mastiff attacked her at the age of seven. “Get it off me,” she screamed.

Rana, automatic pistol in hand, called off Jupiter and said, “We meet again. This time on better terms. At least, for me.” She cuffed Nadya’s hands and feet, grabbed her by the coat collar and propped her up against the crates. “Who’s guarding the elevator?” Rana demanded.

“Screw you,” Nadya replied.

“Jupiter. Guard.” Rana said.

“Get him away from me,” Nadya screamed when Jupiter stepped between her stretched-out legs and bared his fangs in her face.

“The next command will be worse,” Rana said calmly.

“All right. Just take him away,” Nadya whimpered.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the lot, Zula and Klara were circling around each other in an age-old standoff between two combatants who knew they were facing a fight to the death, each one seeking an advantage. Then, before either one made a move, they heard a loud command and averted their eyes briefly enough to see Jose standing nearby. Pointing Klara’s Uzi at its previous owner, he yelled, “On the ground.”

“Thanks, brother,” Zula said. “You saved me a lot of trouble.”

Just then Lena ran out from behind the shed. When she saw Klara face down in the dirt, she gestured at the shed door and said, “Cuff her and take her in there.”

A few minutes later, Lena and the other three were huddled in the equipment shed. Nadya and Klara were trussed and gagged in a back corner. With information from interrogation of the two assassins, they were planning how to take control of the elevator away from Blacker and Hooper. Suddenly they heard the unmistakable wop-wop-wop sound of a helicopter in the distance. “Here they come,” Zula said, and they all knew who she meant—Captain Winters and his army ranger team. “Five minutes at most,” Zula added after listening at the open door of the shed.

While Lena and her family were battling the enemy above ground, Max was trying to control the growing unrest of the laboratory staff a hundred feet underground. He had propped open the doors so the elevator couldn’t respond to repeated signals for it to be brought back to the surface. He had no way of knowing who was making the requests or who they would face if they rode up with it. But he also realized that the trapped people were growing more desperate by the hour to escape, especially now that the program was apparently in shambles with Schlossman out of commission and Danforth and the two guards dead. On the other hand, what if it were Lena trying to retrieve the elevator? Lack of telephone communications made it impossible to know. He had to do something—they couldn’t stay where they were forever. With this dilemma in mind, he decided to carry out the plan he had been considering for the past hour.

“Dr. Mortenson, here’s what we’re going to do,’ Max said, waving her into an office and closing the door. After he explained the plan, he went into the elevator car and pushed open the ceiling hatch cover. Standing on a chair, he climbed up into the space above the car and replaced the cover. Then with the help of a colleague, Mortenson brought Schlossman from his office, forced him into the elevator and let the doors slide shut. By this point Schlossman was a shadow of his former self, trembling with fear and worry over what his boss would do about his leadership failure.

As soon as the doors closed, the elevator started its accent in response to the last UP command still stored in its computer. Forty seconds later, a single ring suddenly announced its arrival in the elevator building. Blacker and Hooper were shocked at the arrival and stared at the doors as they slid open. “Who are you?” Blacker said when he saw Schlossman cowering in a corner.

“Schlossman! What’s going on down below?” Hooper yelled. Blacker entered the car and coaxed the trembling director out and set him down in the only chair in the room. While Hooper and Blacker hovered around Schlossman, trying to calm him and get answers to their questions, Max silently removed the hatch cover and dropped onto the floor just as the doors began to slide shut. He stuck his hand between them and they reversed direction. When Blacker spun around to see what the noise was, Max sprung forward with a burst of energy.

Before Blacker could pull the pistol from the holster at his waist, in one smooth move Max slammed his fist into his face and grabbed the gun with his other hand. Hooper, already numbed by alcohol, was paralyzed with surprise. Schlossman passed out and fell to the floor. Before Blacker could recover, Max hit him two more times, causing him to collapse onto the floor where he lay unconsciousness.

In a state of enhanced power, Max heard the approaching helicopter. He pushed Hooper into the chair vacated by Schlossman and ripped off the drunk man’s belt and secured him in place. He then opened the door a crack and looked out. Seeing the coast clear, he stepped outside and surveyed the area.

Across the wide lot, Zula stood just inside the equipment shed door that was partially open. She was watching for the helicopter that was getting louder. Seeing movement next to the elevator building out of the corner of her eye, she glanced in that direction. “Dad!” she screamed. “It’s dad,” she yelled at the others. “Over here. Hurry,” she yelled at Max as he started across the lot to where he saw her standing by an open door. He entered the shed through the door Zula held open just wide enough for him to make it in. The helicopter came over the horizon as the door shut behind him.

Rana watched through a crack in the front wall as the aircraft touched down in the middle of the lot, about fifteen yards from the shed. After a minute or so, she said, “There’s five of them besides the pilot. They look like Army, and they’re armed to the teeth. One of them’s headed toward the elevator building. The others are staying near the chopper.

When Captain Winters entered the building, he was startled by the three men he found there. General Hooper was secured to a chair and smelled of liquor; a man he assumed was Blacker was sprawled unmoving on the floor, bleeding from a split lip and crushed nose; another man was lying on the floor mumbling incoherently. “What the hell’s going on?” Winter asked no one in particular.

“He’s a monster! You gotta kill him.” Hooper slurred. “He escaped from the lab, attacked us, then took off . . . ten minutes ago,” he managed to say.

“The old guy we captured in Mexico?”


“Where are the guards? I didn’t see anyone out there,” Winter said.

“Don’t know. Didn’t answer our calls. Two mercenaries—women— went out— haven’t come back. Someone must have come to help Manus. Maybe the two women who escaped yesterday from where Blacker had them. You gotta take care of this mess.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Winters replied as he unbelted Hooper, then went out the door and ran to where his team waited. “Those guys in there are useless. They have no idea what’s going on, or who we’re up against. First, we’ll walk the perimeter. Joe, you and Terry take that side,” he said, nodding to his left. “We’ll take this side. Start at the gate.”

Rana watched the five men go to the gate, divide into two groups, then start down the fence lines. When she described this to the others, Lena said, “What do you suggest, Max?”

“I’ll leave that to you, Liebchen. I’ve been holed up underground and have no idea what the layout is up here. But there’s something very fishy about this whole setup. Schlossman, the guy who was in charge down there, is a sleazy bastard. The lab was run like a prison, and most of the science was second-rate at best. If the drunk old guy I found up top by the elevator is part of this program, that explains a lot. He must be the one Schlossman referred to as The General.”

“Blacker’s definitely off-the-books,” Lena added.

“For sure.” Zula said, “and this special ops team seems off-the-books, too. I bet they’re taking illegal orders from Hooper. The army wouldn’t be using war tactics on a civilian science project. Even a phony one. This whole operation stinks, if you ask me,”.

“Be that as it may, there’s five highly trained killers out there who wouldn’t hesitate a second to blow all of us away. So we better think up a plan, and do it quick,” Lena said.

“We better do something real fast because there’s a good chance those guys will find the three guards we left out there, then we’d be up against eight, not five, Jose said.

“We gotta draw them away from the perimeter. That’s where we left the guards,” Rana said.

“That’ll be easy. I’ll sneak out there, pull out the pilot and blow up the chopper. That should get their attention,” Zula volunteered.

“Then what?” Jose asked.

“We’ll rely on what’s worked in the past,” Max said. “Our superpower and two successful tactics—divide and conquer and strike fast and forcefully.”

‘So, what’s the plan?” Jose asked.

“How about this?” Lena said. “We split them into separate groups of two or three, then ambush them or take them down one at a time.”

“How can we split them up?” Rana asked.

Zula jumped in. “If I blow the chopper, they’ll probably all come running to see what happened. When they do, some of us can be positioned in different locations. When they spot us probably divide up and come after each one of us. The rest of us can be waiting in ambush for us to lead the targets to them. The dogs can help, too.”

“These guys have Kevlar jackets, so we’ll have to take them down with shots in their legs.”

“That’s better, anyway. We don’t want the army after us for murder. Inflicting wounds in self-defense will be easier to justify.” After a moment of silence, Lena added, “Any better ideas?” No one said anything. “All right then. This is the plan. Rana, let’s look at that layout of this place again.”


Five minutes later, Max and his family were strategically positioned in three directions from the helicopter. While they waited, Zula crept up on the helicopter from behind, yanked open the pilot’s door and pulled him out. With a pistol in his face, she tossed in a delay-activation grenade, then ran him back to the shed. After she cuffed and gagged him, she tied him to a support post with the other captives. The explosion went off as she stepped out of sight around the corner of the shed to wait for the soldiers to return.

When Captain Winters heard the explosion, he looked in the direction of the helicopter and saw a giant fireball erupt with billowing black smoke rising behind. “The chopper,” he screamed. “Come on!” he commanded, as he raced forward with his two men running next to him. Lieutenant Arnold and Sergeant Felix, along the fence on the opposite side of the property, heard Winters’ command and rushed to join their comrades. When they all got to the open lot they stopped short of getting closer to the fiery inferno and stood paralyzed with rage.

 “The pilot,” Felix screamed. No one responded.

Then there was a sudden flurry of movement, a flash at the corner of a long shed near the burning helicopter, a man next to a small building near a pile of wooden crates, and a quick movement near a line of huge dirt haulers.

“Captain! Did you see that?” Arnold yelled, pointing at the dirt haulers.

“There was someone by that shed over there, too,” Felix said.

“By that little building, too,” someone added.

“I saw it. We’re gonna take out these bastards,” Winters said as he checked his automatic rifle. “Arnold, you and Felix take that shed. You two, that little building down there. I’ll take the trucks. Let’s go. No prisoners, either.”


Suffice to say, Max and Lena’s plan worked as smoothly as a Swiss clock, exactly the kind of operation they were used to carrying out. Assess the situation, formulate a plan, execute it with absolute precision and competence, then savor the results. Of course, it never hurts to be able to conger up a touch of superpower when you need it.

Two hours later, Max and Lena were sharing coffee in the plush cabin of an Air Force transport plane with General Phillip Saunders. Saunders was head of a top-secret Army Defense unit focused on nontraditional weapons research. It was the only military group that was aware of Max’s superpower discoveries, at least officially. Hooper, Blacker and Schlossman were in custody, although specific charges had not been formulated yet, and for national security reasons, might never be. Irrespective of troublesome legalities, their futures were not all that rosy. The research staff had been liberated, and after appropriate debriefing and security arrangements, would no doubt be allowed to return to some version of their former lives. The captured and wounded combatants had been recovered and dealt with, and treatment of nonfatal wounds to Zula, Jose, and Zeus had been given high priority. All in all, Max and Lena were satisfied with the outcome of this rescue action and anxious to put it behind them. As soon as Max made his report to the President, they would be on their way to their home in Southeast Portland and to the peaceful life they craved. Lena to her rose garden, her book club and knitting projects, and to a new-found interest in painting. Max to his basement lab, his music, especially the piano lessons he planned to take, and, finally, to achieving fourth-degree black belt in Jiu Jitsu. Life was looking up now that no evil entities were seeking his secret superpower.

But, while our intrepid superheroes were enjoying their coffee 40,000 feet above the earth, two inconspicuous men were hunched over a small table in a dark corner of a working men’s tavern in the Black Sea port city of Burgas, Bulgaria. They were hatching a plot that would change Max and Lena’s naive plans in a way they never could have imagined, and certainly wouldn’t have wanted. 


Hijinks Under Ground: Episode Ten

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saturday, 9:30 pm.

When Blacker checked the caller ID on his ringing phone he saw it was The General. “Damn! I don’t want to talk to him now. Gotta figure out what’s going on first,” he muttered to his companion, Jake, as he let the call go to voice mail.

“The old lady’s friend has stabs in her legs. Maybe they went to a hospital,” Jake said.

“Yeah maybe. But where, and which one? We need help if we’re gonna find them,” Blacker said. “I’ll call Nadya.”

“You again?” Nadya answered. “Now what?”

“The two women you captured have escaped. One of them’s wounded, probably went to a hospital. I need you to help find them. Fast.”

“It’ll cost you.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll get paid.”

“Where are you? Where were they?” Nadya asked.

“The warehouse in Philly.”

“Who’d you have guarding them? Girl scouts?”

 “Maybe they had help. I don’t know.  I’ll check the hospitals in this area. You canvass the ones around the Indian woman’s condo. Do it in person since you’ll have to show phony ID to convince them you’re official.”

“We’ll get on it tomorrow.”

“I need to find them tonight. Do it now.”

“This is really gonna cost you.”

“Just do it!”


En route from Washington, D.C. to Aberdeen Proving Grounds: Saturday, 11:45 pm.


Lena answered on the first ring. “Find anything?

“Yeah. Hang on to your hat. The person Blacker’s been calling is an Army three-star general named Herbert Hooper. It’s a supposedly secure cell phone. Fortunately for you, not upgraded to protect against the latest hacking and tracing programs.”

“Did you get an address?”

 “He lives near Reston. I’ll text it to you. One more thing. I was able to set up monitoring of his calls. You’ll get a ping when he’s on. Thought that would help.”

“That’s great. I owe you for this.”

“I’m not keeping score. I owe you for a lot, too.”

After she ended the call, Lena said to Zula, “After we check on Rana and Jose, we’re gonna pay a visit to General Hooper.”


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Sunday, 12:10 am.


After visiting nine hospitals in the vicinity of the warehouse, Blacker was convinced Lena had not taken Rana in for treatment of the stab wounds anywhere in that area. In the parking lot of the last one, he called General Hooper, worried about what he had to tell him. His call was answered immediately.

“Did you find her?”

“Not yet. But we will, sir. I’ve checked the hospitals around here. Nadya said they aren’t at any of the hospitals around where she and Klara captured them, either. The guy watching the condo says they haven’t gone there.”

“I don’t like this, Blacker.” Hooper’s voice revealed worry rather than anger. “I think you’ve underestimated this woman. We don’t know if she has backup, or why her friend is with her. She’s a lieutenant in an army intelligence unit at Aberdeen. Maybe she’s an analyst or something . . . but you never know . . . although she’s probably not a threat to us. Another thing. I can’t get through to Schlossman. He’s my contact at the mine. Two of the guards went down to investigate and haven’t come back up. And they don’t answer calls. There’s still two guards up top, one at the gate, the other at the elevator. Something’s going on. I want you and your men to go to the mine now. I’ll join you in the morning. Bring Nadya and her crazy partner, too. We need to be prepared for anything. Captain Winters should get there with a four-man special ops team about six hours from now. Around six or seven in the morning.”

Relieved that The General didn’t explode in anger, Blacker calmed himself and said, “I’ve only got one man left, sir. But with those spec ops, and Nadya and Klara, we should be able to handle whatever comes up. We’ll head there now. But, sir. I need to know where it is. All I know is that it’s in West Virginia.”

“It’s an abandoned coal mine near Bluefield. The Hankerman mine, at the end of Hankerman Road, seven miles northwest of the Bluefield airfield. The elevator passcode is AI2020.”

When Blacker and Hooper ended their supposedly secure call, Lena put her phone away and said to Zula, “There’re right about one thing. They’ve underestimated us. Although I do believe we have a challenge ahead of us. If we go to Bluefield directly from the hospital where Rana and Jose are, we should be able to get to the mine by eight am or so. From what Hooper said, we’ll have quite a reception committee to deal with.


Aberdeen Proving Grounds Hospital: Sunday, 12:45 am


“Are you sure you’re up to getting out of here?” Lena asked as Rana changed from a hospital gown into her fatigues.

“Yes, mom. I’m stitched up, loaded with antibiotics and pain killers and bored as hell. Jose only had a flesh wound. No serious damage. He’s ready, too.”

“Then we’re going to West Virginia. Thanks to a General Hooper, we’re gonna have a mine party.”

“What are you talking about, mother?”

“I’ll explain on the way. It’s at least a seven-hour drive, so we’ll have plenty of time to make a plan. Zula’s waiting out front with an Army van and enough weapons to ensure our party will be a roaring success. Let’s find Jose and get going.”

“Did you retrieve my bag of tricks from the SUV we came here in?”

“Of course I did. I know how much you like your gadgets—and how useful they can be.”


Bluefield, West Virginia: Sunday, 6:40 am.


Jose pulled the van into the tree-shaded parking lot of a boarded-up Dairy Queen near the tiny Bluefield airport and cut the engine. “Wake up. We’re here. The coffee’s hot and the donuts are fresh.”

Lena opened her eyes at once, noted the time, stretched her long, muscular arms, and said, “Good work Jose. Zula and I needed the sleep. Looks like Rana got some, too.” Rana and Zula awoke almost as quickly as Lena did, and both were instantly alert, looking around and assessing where they were.

“I’m gonna take care of the dogs while you ladies devour that Dunkin Donuts gourmet breakfast,” Jose said. He got out of the van and opened the rear door to let Jupiter and Zeus leap out. A few minutes later, they returned from the woods that encroached onto the parking lot to find pans of water and food, which they attacked with impressive zest.

“Where’d you get all that?” Lena asked, nodding at the pans.

When Jose turned he saw Lena standing by the van’s side door, watching the dogs scarf down their meal.

“You were all asleep when I stopped at a Walmart on the edge of town. I figured you and Zula wouldn’t have had a chance to feed these guys in the commotion of yesterday. They need to be in top condition today.”

“We all do, don’t we? Speaking of which, let’s get on with it.”

Zula took the wheel and proceeded along Hankerman Road. She slowed a quarter mile before where Rana’s GPS indicated the road ended at the fifteen-acre mine site and pulled into a secluded clearing in the woods bordering the blacktop approach to their destination.

“Jose. Go through the woods to where you can see the gate. Find out how many guards there are,” Lena said, studying the layout of the site on Rana’s laptop. “The entrance to the shaft access elevator is a several hundred yards beyond the gate. There are seven buildings of varying sizes spread around the property between the gate and the elevator building. According to what we learned from Hooper’s call with Blacker, there’s gonna be at least twelve people to deal with. They’ll probably be dispersed in strategic positions between the gate and the elevator, so we have to clear them away one-by-one. And once we get through these, we gotta get Max out of the mine. One of Rana’s devices should be able to trigger what’sprobably passcode-protected access to the only way down to or out of where Max is being held.

Five minutes later, Rana’s phone buzzed, and Jose whispered, “Three men on the inside at the gate, decked out in full battle gear and heavily armed. The gate looks to be ten feet high and reinforced with thick metal crosspieces. A ten-foot-high fence goes off in both directions. There’s concrete blocks scattered in front of the gate to slow approaching vehicles. A small cinder block building next to the gate has a satellite dish and a bunch of antennas. Looks like a communication or surveillance post. This place is tight as a drum.”

When Jose rejoined the women, Lena said, “The gate’s out. We’ll have to breach the fence. We’ll split up and go in from opposite directions. That’ll divide their forces when they detect us. I’m guessing they’ve installed cameras around the grounds. If there’s twelve of them, the odds are three-to-one against us, so we’ll have to rely on Max’s superpower surging when the need arises—and the dogs. It’s worked before, it should again.”

“How should we split up?” Rana asked.

“You and Jose follow the fence line to the right. Take one of the dogs. Keep to the woods until you find a good spot to cut through with the bolt cutter. Zula and I will go the other way,” Lena said.

“We’ll take Jupiter. Zeus has developed a strong attachment to Zula,” Jose added as Zula passed out the Kevlar vests she included with the weapons she appropriated from the base when she “borrowed” the van.

“We’ll keep in constant communication with the walkie-talkies. And remember what Max always says in situations like this—strike fast and forcefully, no half-measures. But also keep in mind what I say as a mother—be careful.”

“If we can, we’ll try to take out the surveillance system. But we’d have to distract the gate guards to get to that communication post, Rana said.”

“We’ll see what we can do once we’re in position,” Lena said. “All right, let’s go.”

Ten minutes later, Rana spoke into the mike clipped to her vest,” We’re still outside, but in a good spot. There’s a little grove of pines on the other side, then a line of parked dirt-hauler trucks.”

“Okay. Stay there. There’s a place up ahead where Zula and I can cut through. Give us a few minutes,” Lena responded, then followed Zula along the tree line toward a spot opposite the backside of a flat-roofed shed of some kind, about 20 x 30 feet in size.

A couple of minutes later, hiding behind a dense bush about twenty feet from the fence, Lena whispered into her mike. “We’re ready. We’ll go in first. They’re probably monitoring this fence, so they’ll know when we cut it. Be ready for anything—let’s do it!”

“Mom. Hold on a second,” Rana said. “We can see the front gate from where we are. Let’s see if one or two of the guards go to check it out when you cut through. That would give Jose and me a better chance to get in and take out the surveillance system. We’ll wait to go in until we see what happens.”

“Good idea.” Lena said, nodding at Zula, who was ready with a bolt cutter. 


When they heard a buzzer go off, one of the men guarding the gate, the ex-special ops soldier, Jake, who worked for Blacker, ran into the control shack to check the screens. “There’s a fence breach in sector three,” he yelled. “Harlan, you and Buzz check it out. Go!”


Zula squeezed through the six-foot cut in the chain link, ran to the back of the shed, jumped high enough to grab the roof edge, pulled herself up, and scrambled onto the flat surface where she lay prone, close enough to the edge to see the fence. At the same time, Lena and Zeus squeezed through the cut and hid behind a row of 50-gallon barrels next to the shed. Just as Lena got there, she heard Rana’s voice in her ear bud. “Two guards are running toward a shed on the far side of the property. Must be where you and Zula are. We’re gonna go in now and take out the other gate guard and the control center.”

“Okay.” Lena replied, but said no more since at that moment two armed men ran up to where the fence was cut, stood for a second looking around, then separated, edging off in different directions. One walked slowly toward the barrels and the other one went toward the far corner of the shed, both holding automatic rifles at the ready.

Lena saw Zula’s head at the edge of the roof, pointed at the man directly under her and mouthed “now.”

When Zula dropped onto the guard below her, Lena sent Zeus off to the side from behind the barrels. When the Guard heading in her direction turned his head to follow the blur of Zeus speeding away, Lena sprang over a barrel and landed beside him, yelling “Zeus, gun!” At the same time, she deflected the gun with one hand and slammed the other fist into the man’s throat as Zeus clamped his jaws onto his gun arm and shook it so violently the weapon flew out of the man’s hands. When Lena kicked his legs out from under him, the choking and confused guard fell to the ground gasping for air. With practiced speed, and while Zeus stood over him, Lena cuffed the man’s hands and feet, then gagged him.

Meanwhile, the surprise of her attack from above allowed Zula to overpower her target with dispatch, and she drove him to the ground. He twisted around to shake her off his back, but her tenacious chokehold quickly made him black out. As soon as he was trussed and gagged like his partner, and their weapons were tossed over the fence into the underbrush, Lena called Rana.

“Two down. Where are you?”

“We’re still outside. We’ll cut the fence now. Can you get into a position to see the gate guard?”

“Give us half a minute. We’re gonna put these two in this shed out of sight. Don’t want them found by anybody too soon. I’ll ping you when we’re done.”

When Rana’s phone pinged three minutes later, she and Jose cut through the fence and crept to a line of dirt-haulers. Jupiter followed close behind them.

When the security alarm went off again, Jake ran into the hut to check the screens and was shocked to discover another fence breach. He ran out and looked around, then called Blacker, who was still in the building where the elevator was housed. General Hooper and the two assassins, Nadya and Klara, were with him. “We’ve got a problem. The fence was breached in two places. Harlan and Buzz are checking on one spot. I’ll check the one that happened just now.”

“General Hooper saw concern spread over Blacker’s face as he listened to the guard. “What’s going on?” Hooper asked when Blacker ended the call.

“The fence was breached. But our guys will handle it. Don’t worry,” Blacker said. “I’ll stay in contact with Jake.”

Hooper took a flask out of his jacket pocket and took a long pull.


Meanwhile, Rana and Jose slipped around to the rear of one of the dirt-haulers and watched Jake walk past, his eyes fixed on the fence where they cut through. “Attack,” Jose commanded. Jupiter charged forward like a silent missile and sank his fangs into the back of Jake’s knee, taking him to the ground instantly. Jake screamed and tried to kick the vicious dog away. Before Jake could, Jupiter released his jaws from the ripped-open leg and latched on to the arm that held his rifle, biting through flesh to bone. Jake’s screams were interrupted by a blow to the back of his head with the butt of the automatic rifle Jose held ready to hit him with again if necessary. But it wasn’t, Jake was out cold.

From their hiding place on the other side of the lot, Lena and Zula had a clear view of the gate and saw no other guards in sight. Lena was puzzled by the absence of more men. “If my count’s right, there should be five more. Why aren’t some of them at the gate?”

“Your count’s right, Mom. Could it be that the backup team of army guys hasn’t arrived yet?” Zula asked.

Lena nodded, then called Rana. “Do you see any more guards? We don’t.”

“No. The place looks deserted. Should we make our way to the building where the elevator is?” Rana asked, checking a sketch of the layout.

“That’s probably where the others are, or else down in the mine. Only one way to find out. But before we go down that path, you and Jose hide the guy you disabled, then take out the security system. If our suspicion is right, it’s in the gate house. We don’t want to be seen on any screens around this place.

Five minutes later, Rana informed Lena they’d deactivated the gate house computer and control system, then, “We’re ready,” she said.

“Follow the fence line until you’re even with the elevator house, then wait for my call. Zula and I will proceed along this side, past the elevator building and approach it from behind. Let’s go.”


Meanwhile, in the elevator building, Blacker and Hooper were growing more concerned over not being able to reach their men. They were also troubled by the fact that Captain Winters and his team had been delayed getting away from Fort Dix and wouldn’t arrive at the mine site for another hour. “We have to know what’s going on,” Hooper said, pacing around the little windowless room, taking frequent swigs from his flask. “The elevator won’t respond and there’s no reply from the two guards who went down there to check on Schlossman. I can’t get through to him, either. And nothing from the three men who were guarding the gate. Why the hell aren’t there security monitors in here? We don’t even know who’s out there. Or who the enemy is. Blacker . . . you have find out what’s happening.”

Blacker was astonished by Hooper’s unhinged yammering. The old man was losing control right in front of him and sounded nothing like the person he’d been interacting with by phone for the past three years. But Hooper was correct about one thing—they needed to know what was happening. Blacker turned to Nadya, who was watching Hooper with obvious alarm as he repeatedly punched in a passcode then pushed the elevator UP button, paced around the room as if seeking a way out, and sporadically screamed at Blacker. “Nadya, you and Klara get out there and see what you can find out. If it’s the two women who got away from the warehouse, take care of them,” Blacker commanded.

“Are you crazy? There could be a whole army platoon storming this place. This old guy’s off his rocker, and you have no idea what we’re into.”

Blacker pulled out a pistol and pointed it at Nadya. “You and superwoman,” waving the gun at Klara, “are on the clock. We’re not paying you to be afraid. Get going.”

Provoked by Blacker’s accusation of cowardice, and with deference to the pistol he held, Nadya opened the door a crack and peered out. “It looks clear. Come on, Klara, let’s take out these bastards, whoever they are.”


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