Undercover Agent: A Helping Hand Episode Ten - By Howard Schneider

Being unfamiliar with automobiles, Karla didn't notice when Slaggart pressed the door lock switch on his armrest before she opened the passenger door to get out of the car. It was the one he'd driven from Portland to the deserted, fenced-in sawmill where they'd just arrived. After she'd climbed out of the car, she stood in front of the closed door of what a faded sign hanging lopsided on the wall indicated was an office, Slaggart's order to "Knock on it. They're waiting for you," still rang in her ears. Her increasing discomfort as the drive from Portland grew longer, the remoteness of the place he'd brought her to, the locked gate, and Slaggart's lack of openness made her even more warry. She watched as Slaggart drove back to the gate and unlocked it, went  through, relocked it, then drove off. All of that added up to a heightened sense of danger and she decided not to blindly announce her presence. The thought of ending up like the woman Eunice, who'd been connected to the homeless killings and found dead in the river, added to her fear that the danger might be real. 

Back on the dirt lane out to Highway 30, Slaggart tried to call Conti, exactly as he'd been instructed to do, but there was no signal on his phone. Five minutes later, after he got back to Route 30, he tried again and got through. 

Karla stood for a moment longer and looked around. The weather-worn door she was supposed to knock on was to a low, shed-like structure jutting out from a huge, sprawling, two-story dilapidated building—obviously, the office attached to the sawmill behind it. The rough ground was littered with scraps of debris strewn around as if scattered by an angry windstorm. She smiled briefly at the thought of a woman wearing high-heels in a situation like this—something she'd never done in her entire life. She glanced at her gleaming, leather loafers and acknowledged the wisdom of the sturdy shoes and practical pant suit selected by the FBI property manager for her business attire—be prepared for anything was one of the key instructions taught at Quantico. They were right about that, flashed across her mind before she refocused on her present situation. 

Now what? she asked herself. On edge by Slaggart's refusal to let her know what to expect inside the office or who awaited her, and his quick departure and relocking of the gate, she decided to investigate the building before she announced her arrival. Know the lay of the land before taking action, was another commonsense lesson from Quantico. She arbitrarily turned right and hurried to the corner of the office structure. At the corner, she turned and saw an open door hanging off-kilter on its rusted hinges. She was careful to be as quiet as possible as she crept toward the opening leading into the sawmill itself. 

When Karla got inside the crumbling structure, with its expanse of broken-down mill equipment and piles of rotting logs spread out in front of her, she turned to where she thought a door from the office into the mill would be. She made her way forward quietly in the dim light, making sure her walking stick didn't make its usual thump-thump sound as she limped along the filthy floor. The door was where she thought it sould be, but there was no doorknob, just a heavy hasp and substantial padlock. She wasn't surprised since security would be a major concern for whoever was using the office. She put her ear next to the door's surface but didn't hear anything—just silence. But when she stepped away from the door and was looking around the interior of the building for a good hiding place in case she needed one, she heard a phone ring. It was in the office. She went back to the door and put her ear against it again. 

Inside what had been the busy office of a thriving sawmill fifty years earlier, Sal Conti was waiting impatiently for either a knock on the locked door or a call from Slaggart. He'd converted the former office into a high-tech communication center where he ran the Northwest Coast extension of his New York family's expansive crime syndicate. Slaggart was a nobody, a local guy from Ohio posing as a minister of an off-beat, low-rent church Conti's lawyer had found to carry out their plan to eliminate the cause of the growing decline in Portland's downtown property values—in his view a plague of homeless bums and degenerates. It was those property values, which had been growing rapidly over the past decade, that were the basis of his family's investments, the way they were converting their East Coast drug and protection racket earnings into legitimate profits. It was his job to manage this undertaking, and even though he was family, he'd well understood that he better not fail—there was no tolerance for incompetence in his line of work—family or not. Finally, the call from Slaggart came through on his land line, the only phone service he had in this remote location. Before Slaggart could say anything, Conti snapped, "Where are you? What's going on?" 

"I dropped her off ten minutes ago and I'm on my way back to Portland. Isn't she with you? I left her at the office door." 

"What? No. She hasn't shown up. I don't know what's going on, but I don't like it. I'll find her if she's here." Conti slammed the phone down onto its cradle and went to the door and opened it. Seeing no one there, he stepped down onto a large, basalt stepstone and looked around. He saw fresh tire tracks from Slaggart's car, then noticed footprints where the woman must have gotten out. His eyes followed them as they trailed off to his left along the front of the office. What the hell's going on? he wondered, then followed them to the corner. 

Inside the building, Karla heard Conti end the call and then the front door slam shut. "Now I really have to find a hiding place," she mumbled. then started toward an ancient dumpster about twenty yards away. She was nearly there when she heard the phone ring again and keep on ringing until it finally stopped. When she heard the muffled sound of a voice coming from the office, she hurried back to the door to listen. 

When Conti saw that the woman's footprints went into the mill, he followed them toward the open doorway. But before he reached the door, he heard the office phone ringing. Glancing at his watch, he knew it would be his cousin Danny calling for their regular update. He rushed back in time to pick up just before Danny hung up. "I'm here," he answered, out of breath from running for the phone. 

"What took so long to answer? You had me worried. Anything wrong?" 

"No. I was outside." The last thing Conti wanted was for his crazy cousin to think he had a problem taking care of business. 

Not bothering with small-talk, Danny said, "Your numbers for this month don't look so good, Sally. What's going on?" the menace in his icy voice was impossible to ignore. 

"Like I told you, the town's coming apart at the seams. Tenants are breaking leases; property values are collapsing. But it's temporary. It'll come back as soon as the city gets its act together and chases out these sidewalk squatters. Then business will return to normal. It'll just take a little time, that's all." 

"You told us you were helping that along. How's that going?" 

"Good. It's under control. A big event's coming up soon. One that should make a difference." 

"Yeah? What kind of difference, Sal?' Will it help your numbers? Vinny's starting to worry. You know it not good when Vinny gets like that." 

Conti knew he shouldn't over-promise, but also knew he had to hold off Vinny making any rash decisions—like sending someone from New York to Portland to oversee their business here. "Look, Danny, the problem we had getting to the next step is fixed. We're on track for a major kill. Don't worry, we're back on schedule." 

"You saying you'll get this done?" 

"Yeah. That's what I'm saying." 

"Okay. I'll tell Vinny you'll have it under control by the time we talk next week." 

"You tell him that. No problem." 

"You know Vinny don't like being disappointed. Capish?" 

"Yeah. I understand." 

There was silence for a moment, then Karla heard heavy footsteps cross the wood floor then the front door slam shut again. I've got a minute or two to hide before whoever that is comes in here, she thought at once. She scanned the huge space again, looking for the nearest opportunity for concealment. She also wanted to be able to see who it would be. But whoever it was, she knew from the conversation she'd just overheard it wouldn't be a friendly encounter. Seeing nothing close by, she started toward the dumpster she'd seen before, but then spotted a set of wooden stairs at the near end of the building. It was at least fifty yards away but offered a greater chance of escaping discovery than crouching behind the dumpster. With her purse looped across her chest and holding her walking stick in her hand, she ran as fast as she could toward the stairs, the way she'd learned at Quantico to minimize her limp without the use of her stick. The rubber soles of her FBI loafers made the run easier and quieter. When she reached the bottom step, she glanced over her shoulder and saw that the man hadn't yet come through the door she'd used. 

Out of breath, Karla managed to scramble up the staircase, feeling how wobbly it was with each step. She stepped into a high-ceilinged space, like an oversized attic loft. It extended to the other end of the mill. Rusted machines, wooden crates, stacks of what looked like rotting lumber, and trashy debris were everywhere. Then she noticed an opening in the back wall that must have been ten or twelve feet wide. It was in the middle of the loft and when she made her way silently through the maze of junk to where it was, she saw that it opened onto a huge lot where decaying mill products—logs, lumber, piles of sawdust and scrap wood—were scattered. A rust-encrusted iron beam above the door stuck out about ten feet with a weathered wooden pulley at the end. She estimated the distance to the ground to be at least fifteen feet, too far to jump safely. She wondered if there was another way out. 

During the short time it took her to investigate the loading door, she listened for sounds from the floor below but heard nothing. I've got to see what's happening down there, she thought. After a quick look around, she knew the only way to see the floor below was from the top of the stairs. There was a staircase at each end of the loft; she arbitrarily chose the one she'd come up on. When she crouched on the top stair, she felt the whole stairway sway back and forth, then come to a new balance point. After she was sure the structure was stable, she leaned down as low as she could and managed to get a view of the entire space. There he was, standing near the doorway he'd come through, silent and unmoving, scanning the dimly lit interior. 

Conti was breathing hard and felt his heart racing. He'd done his share of working the street in New York, but he'd left that life behind a long time ago. Now his battles were fought from behind a desk, and he felt at a loss for how to handle this situation. His thoughts bounced around in his head: first, he had to find the woman and get rid of her. Evidently, she'd become suspicious and decided to change the plan. That jerk Slaggart must have given her reason to suspect something was wrong. Now she could be anywhere in this damn dilapidated ruin of a mill. When his gaze ran along the back wall, he noticed a large, boarded-over double-door in the middle of the room, then another open doorway in the back wall in the right-hand corner, like the one on the front of the building he'd just entered. Glancing to the left, he saw another one in the far corner as well. He turned back to the doorway out to the back closer to where he stood and mumbled, "Maybe she went out there. I'll check for footprints outside in the dirt." He started walking slowly toward the corner doorway. 

Karla was unsettled when she saw how big he was, although from her vantage point in the shadows and squatting precariously on the second step, she couldn't tell much more about him. But at least he was unlikely to spot her. Then he began walking in her direction, apparently heading to the open doorway in the back wall close to where she was perched. Afraid he would see her as he came closer, she decided to go back up to the loft and out of sight. But when she moved to step up, the staircase suddenly shuddered, ripped away from the wall it was attached to, and collapsed in an explosion of splintered, rotten wood, and a cloud of billowing dust with Karla obscured in its midst. Conti was startled by the crash but recovered quickly and walked toward what was left of the structure. When he was close enough to make out the details as the dust cleared, he spotted the woman lying on her back among the broken stair pieces. When she moaned, then tried to kick off a board across her legs, he took a pistol from his waist band and said, "Don't move until I say so." 

Karla froze at his command, then turned her head enough to see him. He was older than she'd thought, maybe mid-fifties, short gray hair, hard face, huge arms and broad shoulders. The kind of man a woman her size had no chance of overcoming, especially with only a smattering of self-defense moves she'd been taught at Quantico. Glancing around, she realized that her walking stick was on the loft floor where she'd laid it when she used the stairs as a perch. She felt panic set in as he came closer, stepping gingerly on or around shattered remains of the stair structure. Conti grabbed Karla's jacket sleeve and jerked her up as if she were no more than a ragdoll, holding tight until she got her balance. She felt dull pain in her left shoulder and a sharp stab in her neck but was able to stumble through the wreckage as he pulled her along, keeping the gun he held in his other hand pointed at her midsection. "We're gonna have a little talk, lady—in my office. Let's go. Don't try anything stupid—I'd just as soon kill you now instead of later if you give me reason to." He shoved her forward and said, "We're going out that door, then to the office. Move! I'm right behind you." 

When Karla reached the doorway they'd both used to enter the building, she hesitated a moment to ease the pain in her neck. Conti pushed her forward, accelerating her step down to the ground, a drop of about a foot. When she landed, she sensed Conti behind her, and that he would be stepping down the next second. She quickly grabbed the edge of the door where it hung off the jamb by a single hinge and slammed it back with all the force she could muster. But he was quicker than she'd anticipated and stopped it with his meaty hand, then hit her between her shoulder blades with his fist so hard she catapulted forward and landed face-down in the dirt. 

"Get up, bitch. I told you not to do anything stupid. That was stupid." 

Karla didn't move—his blow had knocked the wind out of her. But when Conti yelled at her again as she recovered her breathing, she slowly rose to her hands and knees. As she did, she scooped up a fistful of sandy dirt, then struggled to her knees and stood without his prodding. 

"Go on," he said, poking her in the back with the pistol. She winced at the sharp pain and took a tentative step forward. Realizing she could still walk, she stumbled toward the corner of the office structure, then around the corner to the door. "Open it," he said, pressing the gun into her back again. 

Karla grasped the doorknob and made an effort to turn it. "It's locked," she said. "It won't turn." 

"It can't be locked," Conti said angrily. He pushed her aside and reached in front of her for the knob. At the same instant, Karla threw the fistful of dirt in his eyes, dropped to the ground, and spun around behind him. When the dirt blinded him, he fired three shots in quick succession at where Karla had been standing. Then his world suddenly turned upside down. Crouched behind him, Karla grabbed his pant cuffs and jerked his legs back and away from the doorway, causing him to plunge forward. His forehead hit the stepstone with a solid splat when he landed. Karla kicked the pistol aside from where he'd dropped it, then stepped to where he lay unmoving, his blood spreading over the stone. Bracing herself with one hand against the building, she lifted her leg as high as she could and rammed her foot into the back of his thick neck. She heard a faint click. She did it again, this time with a loud crack. There was no pulse when she felt for one. She stepped around the body, then, avoiding the pooling blood, opened the door and went into the office where she used Conti's land line to call Agent James.

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