It was around ten-thirty Sunday night when Karla finally got back to the North Portland homeless camp where she'd been living after returning from Quantico. After the meeting at FBI headquarters about the woman a witness saw taking a cakebox into the Gresham shelter the previous Friday, Captain Tabor had given her a ride to the camp. He'd dropped her about six blocks away to avoid any possibility of her association with the police, or any stranger at all for that matter. She never forgot the importance of maintaining her cover as a homeless woman who lived close to the edge of the law for a moment. The rumor about her being leader of a gang of juvenile petty thieves provided a reason not to talk to anyone about her activities, especially her source of income.
As she approached the camp, which was situated in a secluded woody area next to the Willamette River, she noticed a fire still visible at the community firepit. Instead of stopping at her tent, she continued on to discover about two dozen campers around the bonfire. Their attention was focused on two men she'd not seen before. They were in their early twenties and scruffy looking. She saw two backpacks and a duffle bag on the ground near them that she assumed were theirs.
"Karla!" one of the campers said when he turned to see who had joined the group. "Thank God you're here. You gotta hear what these guys are saying."
"Hi, Vinnie." Karla replied, then greeted some of the others, including her friend Rosa. She turned down an offer of wine, then, glancing around and addressing no one in particular, asked, "What's going on?"
Another camper, a woman a little younger than Karla named Gretchen, answered at once. "These two guys came in a little while ago. They're looking for a place to stay. They've been camping in Oregon City at a campsite behind the Mountain View Cemetery The one near Newell Creek. They wanted to get away from there . . . said they were scared. Something about a crazy bible-thumper spouting off about how evil homeless people are . . . how all of them are gonna die."
Karla was riveted by what Gretchen said, especially since the first wave of killings had been in Oregon City. She stepped over to where the men were standing. "How'd you hear about this preacher? Have you seen him, or heard him?"
The one who'd been doing all the talking, and who was a few years older than his silent companion, said, "Some of the people in the camp were talking about it. One of the campers has a cousin who goes to a church where the preacher says stuff like that. She told this guy that the preacher says Jesus will come to Portland when all the homeless people are gone."
"Did the cousin say she thinks the preacher is dangerous? Or maybe responsible for the killings?" Karla asked.
The man glanced at his companion, then said, "We didn't hear anything like that. But it seems like it might be more than just coincidence that some crazy preacher's saying we should be killed, then a whole lot of us end up dead. Me and my brother didn't want to hang around to find out if he means it or not."
"Did you tell the police about this?"
"Hell no. The only thing the cops would do is tear down our camp, burn our stuff, and chase us off. You think they care what happens to us?"
Karla started to ask another question, but then stopped, not wanting her fellow campers to wonder why she was so interested in this matter.
After more talk about the killings and how scared Portland's homeless community was, it was decided that the two refugees from Oregon City could stay the night. Gretchen showed them where to set up their tent as the others began heading to their own spots. Karla noted where the newcomers' campsite was and then went to her site. An hour later, when the camp was dark and quiet, she stealthily made her way to the newcomers' tent, woke them, and resumed her questioning. Later, in the darkness of deep night, she slipped a note under the barrel she and Tabor used for conveying messages.
Early Monday morning, Madeline met her posse of four woman in the Southeast Portland bungalow that housed their production facility. The women were preparing to load the boxes of contaminated gloves into their individual cars. Their plan was to leave the gloves at various homeless camps where supposedly they would be snapped up and worn by the campers, especially since cold weather was forecast for the coming week. "Hold on," she yelled, as Eunice was bringing a box up the stairs from the basement laboratory where the toxin had been sprinkled inside the gloves. "We need to talk before you spread these things around."
"What's wrong? You seem upset," Eunice said, a look of puzzlement on her face.
"We've got a problem. That's what's wrong."
"What's happening?" Sheila asked as she, Terri, and Margaret came up from the basement and joined Madeline and Eunice.
"A picture of Eunice was on TV this morning. Actually, it was a drawing, but it looks a lot like her. Someone saw her taking the cookies into the Gresham shelter and reported it to the police," Madeline told them. Her strained voice reflected the anger spreading across her face.
"Oh my god," Terri said. "What are we gonna do?"
"We're going to be more careful, that's what we're gonna do. Disguises, for each of you. Wigs, hats. dark glasses, makeup, whatever it takes. Make it so nobody could identify you. Okay? And Eunice, you have to stay out of the public unless you're in disguise."
Eunice responded at once. "Okay. Sure, we can do that? And I'll be careful. But what about today. The gloves are all set to go. Cold weather's coming. It's a great opportunity. This is my project—I don't want it delayed."
"A day or two won't make that much difference, Eunice. We can't take a risk of you being recognized."
"No!" Madeline interrupted. "We're not risking everything just so you can keep to your damn schedule. And that's final. Focus on disguises. Our new strike day is Wednesday."
Eunice was shaken by Madeline's outburst, but tried not to show it. "All right. We'll be ready by Wednesday." Then she turned to her companions and said, "Put the gloves back in the refrigerator. The toxin's more stable in the cold. Then we'll figure out how to change our looks."
Madeline left as the four women went back to the basement, mumbling their disappointment as they clomped down the stairs.
Agent James glanced at Karla, sitting across the table from him in an FBI headquarters conference room, and for the third time read the note she'd left under the barrel the night before. Captain Tabor had collected it at dawn, brought it to James, then left to report to his precinct. James laid Karla's note on the table and said, "If this is real, it'd be the most significant lead we've had in this God-awful mess."
Karla nodded, then said, "Look. the only way to know if there's anything to it is to check it out. I'm the one to do that. I need to get down to that camp in Oregon City and find that preacher. I'll take the guy from there who came to my camp last night. I think his name's Jimmy, or John, something like that. He must know who was talking about the preacher."
"What will you tell him your reason is for going there . . . and taking him with you? You sure as hell can't tell him the truth about what you're doing. Or who you are."
"You think I don't know that Agent James? So, we gotta come up with a convincing story. Got any bright ideas, bright boy?"
James cringed at her rebuff, then got up, grabbed the coffee carafe off the credenza, and refilled their cups. Then he sat back down. "Okay. How 'bout you tell him you heard a rumor that your long-lost homeless sister, or whoever, might be in Oregon City. You wanna' check it out, see if you can find her. But don't know your way around down there. Like, would he go with you to sort of be your guide? Something along those lines?"
"Hmm. Maybe. I'll think about it. It might work. I'll let you know. But now I gotta get back to camp, grab that guy and get to Oregon City. We'll take the Number 35 bus. After a bunch of transfers, that's how he and his brother got to our camp."
James stood and said, "You want a ride?"
"Sure. You can drop me off at the bus stop on Lombard Street, I'll walk the rest of the way."
While Agent James was driving Karla back to her camp, Dr. Sarah Musetti was in her Stanford University chemistry department lab studying the mass spectrometer spectra her good friend, Bruce Magnusson, had sent from Quantico the night before. "Damn! This is amazing. It's the first time I've seen a fragment pattern so close to the breakdown fragments of batrachotoxin. Whatever Bruce is dealing with must be a closely related analog. There's no doubt about it—and whatever its molecular structure is, my educated guess is that it's extremely toxic. Any compound related to the alkaloid blowgun dart poison used by those tribes in the Colombian Amazon has the potential to be lethal—batrachotoxin is one of the most potent toxic substances in the world, and there's no antidote. If it gets into the blood stream. like it would be from an arrow or dart wound, it would cause death by paralysis of the nervous system and the heart immediately. If taken orally, it would cause death after being absorbed from the GI tract, probably within an hour or so. If it's applied on the skin, it would have to be formulated with some kind of carrier substance to transport it across the dermal layers. Then it would get into blood capillaries, then into the general circulation, then death."
Her lab assistant, Sandra, who was standing next to her, asked, "You think this is what might be killing those people in Portland? The spectra label says PDX Police."
"Could be. If it is, they've got a serious situation on their hands. I'll call Bruce. He's not going to like what I have to tell him."
When Karla got back to her camp it was noon and some of the campers were gathered around the firepit waiting for the stew Rosa made from a big walleye one of the men pulled out of the Columbia at Kelly Point. The guy from Oregon City she'd talked to the night before, Jami was his name, was there and she sat down next to him where he was sitting on one of the makeshift benches near the fire. After she'd said her hellos to a few of the others, she turned to Jami and asked, "How do you like our camp?"
"It's great. Better than most of the other camps me and Larry been in. Yeah, it's real nice."
"Think you'd like to stay?"
"Hell yeah. We'd like that."
"The thing that makes this place so good is that everybody contributes in some way or other, like for the community meals Rosa fixes. We slip her a few bucks when we can. We help each other when it's needed, as well. Are you and your brother willing to do that?"
"Sure. We'll do what we can. Larry's got a condition—he gets SSI every month. We collect it at a place downtown. It ain't a lot, but we could put some of that toward the food . . . and for Rosa. Would that be okay?"
"Yeah, probably. I'll put in a word with Gretchen. She keeps an eye on the camp when most of the rest of are off doing whatever we can do to make a few bucks." They sat in silence for a moment, then Karla added, "But there is a way you could help me right away . . . if you're willing to, that is."
"How's that," he asked, a worried look creeping across his face.
"I need to find someone who I heard might be living in a homeless camp in Oregon City. I've never been down there and wouldn't know where to start. Would you go down there with me? See what we can find out?"
Before Jami could answer, Rosa rang her dinner bell and yelled, "Food's on. First come, first served," her usual announcement to declare that whatever she'd prepared was ready.
While Karla and her fellow campers were digging into Rosa's fish stew, Chester and Madeline, in their home in rural Clackamas County, were starting a lunch of fresh-made macaroni and cheese containing generous amounts of diced Spam, Chester's favorite meat. "Don't you like it?" Madeline asked as Chester sat slumped in his chair, pushing hunks of cheese-coated Spam around his plate with his fork.
"Huh? Oh, yeah, sure, it's great."
"So, what's wrong, then? You seem distracted, or depressed. Is everything all right downstairs?"
Chester glanced up from his plate and returned Madeline's questioning eyes with a blank stare, then said, "The bugs are sick. They're not reproducing. I'm trying to fix whatever's wrong. But nothing 's working."
"Bugs? What bugs? What are you talking about?"
"The beetles that make the toxin, that's what I'm talking about. I need a lot more to produce the amounts of toxin you'll need to increase the kill number."
"I thought you got the toxin from those little yellow frogs you're always bragging about. Bio-machines, you called them."
"I did, but they won't do for the amounts we're gonna need now. Anyway, the frogs don't make the toxin. They get it from the beetles. The beetles make it, and the frogs eat the beetles."
"What? Why doesn't the toxin in the beetles kill the frogs?"
"The frogs are immune to it. They excrete it through glands on their skin. I collect it off the frogs. It's a laborious process . . . dangerous, as well. It takes more than fifty frogs to harvest just one milligram of the stuff. Then I modify it chemically in different ways so it will resist the high temperatures when baked into cookies, or bread, or whatever. Or so it can be absorbed from the GI tract, or after application to the skin whatever. Eventually we're gonna need hundreds of times more than what I can produce with frogs."
"Chester, you better get your act together, and fast! There's a lot depending on your little beetles. You gotta figure out what's keeping them from reproducing and fix it. And fix it soon. You wouldn't want Pastor Slaggart to think you're falling down on your job."
"Think I don't know that? I'm doing the best I can. But it'll take time. This has never been done before, so there's no roadmap to follow. Largescale production of batrachotoxin from Melyridae beetles is like—"
"Chester! Stop it! Nobody cares about how hard it is. Especially me. Just get it done!" Madeline shrieked, then grabbed her phone and punched in Pastor Slaggart's number.