Undercover Agent: A Helping Hand, Epi Three - By Howard Schneider

Karla, Agent James, and Captain Tabor had been sequestered in an FBI headquarters conference room in Portland, Oregon, most of Sunday morning, reviewing everything they knew about the mysterious deaths of Portland's homeless, when Agent in Charge Hanna Marx came into the room. She poured a cup of coffee and took an empty chair. "Somebody, bring me up to date." 

James spoke first. "As of yesterday, Karla's a volunteer at the shelter in Gresham, the one near where the last bunch of bodies was found. She's made friends with the woman who cooks the breakfasts and lunches. It's just a day shelter and doesn't do dinners or overnight stays." 

"What good's that gonna do?" Marx asked." These killings haven't turned up in the same area more than once. They're all over the place, somewhere different every time. And the Portland police have already been through that place with a fine-tooth comb." 

"You're right," Karla chimed in. "We know that. But by getting to know the people that run the shelter, we thought maybe I could get a better idea of how the Gresham victims might have been exposed to whatever it was that killed them. Maybe something PPD missed. You're right that there's no way to know where the perpetrators might strike next, if there is a next strike. But at least Gresham's a place for me to start. 

"Okay, I get that. So, what have you found out that the Portland police haven't?" Marx asked. 

"Nothing yet. Mrs. Chaudry, the woman who prepares the breakfasts and lunches the shelter provides free every day, recognized photos of most of the victims. She remembers them from the lunch service that same day," Karla said. 

Marx interrupted, "How did she recognize them? Wouldn't she have been in the kitchen cooking?" 

She serves, too—along with a couple of volunteers. The volunteers remember some of the victims, as well. It appears pretty certain that some of the people found dead ate lunch at the shelter." 

"So, this Mrs. Chaudry is the murderer?" 

"Unlikely," Tabor said. "Her background's clean. And she had no access to the previous homeless who died elsewhere from the same cause. And not all the people who had lunch there were found dead. Sixty-seven people were served—only thirty-seven bodies were found." 

Karla continued. "Lunches sometimes include items donated by people, like cookies or other deserts. It so happened that day that there was a gift box of cookies donated anonymously. But they weren't noticed until one of the volunteers found them in the afternoon, on a table where the coffee urn is stationed. Nobody at the shelter knows anything about who left it. A gift card was signed 'A Friend.' The shelter doesn't have a security camera system, either. Unfortunately, there're no cookies left that could be analyzed. They'd all been eaten by closing time. The box they were in is long gone. We can't count them out as a source of poisoning." 

"What has the Quantico lab found out about a poison?" Marx asked. 

"Still no trace of any kind of poison in any of the victim's blood samples. They want urine samples from any new victims," James said. 

"Will the pathologist do that?" Marx asked. 

"No problem. I talked to him yesterday, They're gonna try and get samples from as many of the corpses as possible as soon as possible. They'll express them to Quantico." Tabor said. 

Marx shuffled through the rest of the papers in the folder, then said, "All right. What are you going to do now?" 

Tabor answered at once. "Last night we issued a news bulletin requesting help from the public—seeking information about a donation of cookies to the Gresham shelter Friday. We've sent warnings to all area shelters about anonymous food donations. Karla's going back to the shelter this afternoon to dig around some more. Other than that, all we can do is wait . . . and hope there isn’t another attack." 

Twenty miles south of the FBI headquarters, as the clock on the back wall of a one-room, strip mall church struck noon, Pastor Slaggart ended his hell and brimstone Sunday sermon with a version of the same prayer he always ended with. "Lord, we beseech you to continue guiding us as we clear the way for your return to this world. We know it will be soon and it will be here in Portland, a godless city overrun by disciples of the devil himself. We are using your strength to carry out your instructions. We will keep our promise to rid Portland of the homeless sinners who foul its streets, refuse to follow in your footsteps, and refuse to prepare for your coming—those who putrefy the air with disdain for your holiness. We will prevail and clear the way for your return. Amen." 

Four of the twenty-odd church members remained in their pews while Pastor Slaggart stood at the door out to the parking strip saying goodbye to the other worshipers as they left the building. When he returned to the room used as a sanctuary, he joined Madeline's team of dedicated women. "I missed Madeline today. Is she ill?" 

"Oh, no, Pastor. She's with Chester. He's supposed to have more of the powder today. Madeline will bring it to us this afternoon so we can get ready for the next strike," Eunice answered proudly. 

"Wonderful," the pastor replied. "I'm sure you'll be thrilled to know that this morning God told me he is pleased with your progress and he will keep protecting all of you, so you'll be able to finish the task He's given us." 

"Would you like to help us today, Pastor?" 

"No, I don't think so, Eunice. We each have our role to play. It's like in the army. My job is to communicate with God about how best to carry out His will. Yours is to do what He instructs us to do. And Chester's job is to give us the sacred substance to use in following His instructions. You do understand that, don't you, Eunice?" 

'"Yes, Pastor. I understand. We all do," Eunice said, glancing at the others. "God is the general. You are the captain. Chester is the quartermaster. And we are the soldiers." 

"That's right, Eunice. Now—shall we pray?" 

It was half-past twelve when Karla got to the Gresham shelter. She found Mrs. Chaudry and two volunteers serving the last few meals. "How can I help?" Karla asked. 

"We're about done with lunch. Why don't you check in with Harriette? She told me we're short a front desk receptionist today. Maybe you could fill in." 

Although Karla wasn't familiar with every aspect of the shelter's operation, Harriette convinced her she'd do just fine answering calls and directing visitors to where they needed to go. And that she'd be in her office if Karla came up against something she couldn't handle on her own. 

Harriette had been right. Throughout the afternoon, Karla had had no trouble managing phone inquiries and the inflow of people seeking a safe space to escape from a cold rain, find unlimited hot coffee and snacks, and hear a kind word instead of being assailed with menacing stares and hostile threats. Then, just before closing time, which was five p.m., a woman came through the front entrance and approached the desk. Rainwater dripped from her plastic rainhat and puddled on the floor. 

"May I help you?" Karla asked, quickly taking stock of the woman. She obviously wasn't a street person–the quality of her raincoat and designer handbag made that clear. 

"It's about all those people who were killed. I'm not sure, but I might have seen a person fitting the description in yesterday's Oregonian. When I read the article, nothing came to mind. But just now, as I was walking by your front door on my way to the restaurant in the next block, it came back to me. I nearly bumped into a woman who was carrying what looked like a cake box. She had short brown hair and was about my height–I'm five-six. I opened the door for her since she was holding the box with both hands. She seemed to be in a hurry." 

"What day was that?" 

"Friday. In the middle of the afternoon. Around three—I was on my way to the optometrist on the corner." 

Karla remained calm but spoke with urgency. "Mrs. . . .?" 

"Clemson, Cora" 

"Karla jotted the name down, then said, "Mrs. Clemson, you need to give this information to the authorities immediately. I have the phone number of someone at the FBI who will want to talk to you as soon as possible. Here, call this—" 

"I'll do it tomorrow. I'm meeting friends for dinner," Mrs. Clemson interrupted when Karla extended her hand holding a slip of paper with Agent James' mobile number written on it. Mrs. Clemson took the slip of paper from Karla and turned toward the front door. 

Karla jumped up from her chair, stepped from behind the desk, and blocked Mrs. Clemson from leaving. "I must insist. You have to talk to this man now. Your information is too important to wait until tomorrow. It could save lives." Karla then grasped Mrs. Clemson by the elbow and led her to a small meeting room, told her to sit down, then called James herself. 

Forty-five minutes later, while Agent James was questioning Mrs. Clemson at the Gresham shelter, Eunice and her two companions were unpacking boxes of white, cloth work gloves and placing them inside the three HEPA- and charcoal-filtered exhaust hoods in the basement of their meeting house in Southeast Portland—24 pair in each hood. 

Eunice finished the call she was on, then said, "Madeline should be here in about twenty minutes. She said there's enough powder for all 72 pair, but we have to be careful not to put too much in any of them. Exactly 10 milligrams. Use those little scoops Chester made. Just sprinkle it inside each glove. It's the same color as the gloves, so it won’t show. And be very careful. Even though the toxin is diluted a hundredfold by the additives to make it absorbable through skin, it's still strong enough to kill, so we can't let it get on us. Not even a tiny little smidgeon. If there's any left over, we'll save it for another attack—we have to make every precious little bit count." 

Later that same day, at 7:17 p.m. to be precise, Karla, James, and Tabor were back in the conference room at FBI headquarters. "Come in," James said when there was a knock on the closed door. 

A young woman entered and said, "Here's the composite of the woman Mrs. Clemson described. Her memory seemed good, although she didn't remember, or notice, the woman's eye color. She was cooperative, even though she was pissed off about missing her dinner date. But I do think this drawing is pretty accurate—at least as accurate as these things usually are." She handed the copies to James and he gave one to each of the others. 

Karla studied the color-tinted, full-body drawing. "She looks to be in her mid-fifties, Caucasian, brown hair, cut in a short bob, thin face, but not extremely so. No cosmetics, no glasses, a mole on her left cheek close to her nose. She doesn't look overweight, but not thin, either." 

The young woman interrupted, "Mrs. Clemson said she was the same height as she is, five feet-six." 

Karla nodded, then continued, "She's dressed modestly in jeans, or maybe slacks, a green sweater, an unzipped, black Columbia Sportswear rain jacket. Is this good enough to issue as an all-points bulletin?" 

"It looks good enough to me," Tabor remarked. "But it doesn't show what Mrs. Clemson described as a look of determination on the woman's face, totally ignoring Mrs. Clemson as she stood holding the door open for her. As if she were on a mission." 

"The sketch artist was at a loss how to capture that look, so she didn't try," the young woman who brought in the reproduction said. "Should I ask her take another stab at it?" 

"No. We gotta get this out as soon as we can. Anyway, it would be hard to capture that impression in a drawing like this. We'll go with what we have," James said. "Thank you—and tell the artist she did good work." He glanced at the others, and they nodded in agreement. "Put this out as an APB . . ., ASAP," he then added. 

On the opposite coast, it was 11:45 p.m. when Dr. Bruce Magnusson got the final printout from the mass spectrometer analysis of the last of the seven urine samples the pathologist had been able to collect from the Gresham victims. The samples had been taken from corpses still retained in Portland's police department morgue and flown to Quantico Sunday morning. Magnusson's lab had worked diligently all-day Sunday, running every feasible analytical method at their disposal. "It’s the same pattern, consistent for all the samples. Small molecule fragments that seem to be derived from some kind of steroid, and a few other fragments that are unrelated. There's nothing that could be linked to any poisons I'm aware of. I've never seen anything like this." 

"What about other labs? Would any of your mass spec colleagues have seen this kind of pattern?" his assistant, Syble, asked. 

"Maybe. It's worth a try. I'll email these spectra to all of them. I'll do it now." Magnusson hurried to his office, typed out a history of the case, attached the analytical results, and sent it to seven of the best analytical chemists and five of the top natural products chemists in the country, all of whom were also experts in mass spectrometry. 

"Let's hope tomorrow brings a better understanding of what kind of molecule these fragments might be derived from," Magnusson said to Syble, who was shutting down the mass spectrometer, as he closed the lab door behind him and headed home.

1 comment