The woman and the two men who were funding the project to exterminate Portland's homeless population were together in a Heathman Hotel restaurant private room having breakfast and listening to Charles describe what Pastor Slaggart told him about Karla's proposal the day before. When Charles finished, Sal Conti was the first to speak. "First this dame wants in on the action, like she's some wannabe mass murderer. Now all of a sudden, she wants to put in a couple hundred grand to make it go faster. There's something fishy about this. I don't like it."
"I researched her," Catherine Angelico interrupted. "From what I found on the internet, she's for real—she owns a bunch of income-producing properties here in Portland, and just as many in Chicago and St. Louis. She looks legitimate. Maybe she's as upset about what's happening to our city as we are. Portland looks like a refugee camp in some war-torn, third-world shithole country. If she wants to put in money, I say more power to her. And as far as that goes, I wouldn't mind chipping in less since my income's down thirty percent compared to a year ago."
"Some of my clients won't even come downtown anymore." Henry Jimson added. "We've gotta do something fast or the city's going to hell."
"I still don't like it," Conti blurted out. "Something ain't right. I know most of the commercial real estate agents in Portland and none of them have heard of her. You'd think they'd know whoever owned as many properties as she's supposed to, wouldn't you?"
Wanting to take back control of the meeting, Charles said, "According to Slaggart, she does everything she can to stay under the radar. She's got people doing stuff for her—keeping her out of the public eye. But to satisfy Mr. Conti's concerns, we could have her come in for an interview. Would that be acceptable, Mr. Conti?"
"Are you suggesting we reveal our identity to her? I'm not so anxious to do that. Not yet anyway. I'll do some more asking around, see what I can turn up. Then we can decide about an interview."
When the other two concurred with Conti's objection, Charles said, "Okay. I'll tell Slaggart to stall her, to tell her we're thinking about it. That we're interested in what she's proposing, but that we might want to meet her in person. And that he'll let her know when and how we'll proceed. Is that all right?"
They agreed to Charles's suggestion, and then Conti said he'd let them know what he found out about her. After the three left, Charles took a new burner from a bag of them and called Slaggart.
Meanwhile at FBI headquarters, Agent James was telling Chief Marx how he'd been unable to turn up any leads on purchases of equipment and chemical supplies that Dr. Musetti said whoever was making the toxin would need. "There're no records in this area of anything remotely related to what she mentioned. The only other possibility is that they're buying supplies in some other part of the country and having them delivered here. Or maybe they're making the toxin someplace else and having it sent to Portland."
"Keep looking. No matter where they're making it, they have to be getting supplies someplace. I'll send a request to Central Headquarters for help in checking purchases throughout the whole country."
"The other problem we're having is that the phone taps we set up for Slaggart and his contacts aren't yielding anything," James continued.
"That's not surprising," Marx said. "They're probably using disposable phones. If they weren't before, they probably are now. They must realize that the last big kill, at least what they think was a kill, would increase efforts to find out who they are."
James nodded in agreement, then said, "So, we're stymied—at least until Karla gets past Slaggart—to whoever's controlling him."
"Yeah. Let's hope she can pull it off," Marx said as she headed back to her office.
Chester was finishing his second bowl of black eyed pea soup when Madeline asked, "You want more cornbread to go with the last of that?"
"No. I've had enough. Save the rest for dinner. I gotta get back to the lab."
Before Chester was able to slide his chair back and get up to leave, Madeline said, "Hold on. A little while ago Slaggart told me that money was put in our account so we can order your supplies—those things you said you were getting low on."
"Good. I'll give you a list for Hernando. It usually takes a week for him to bring the stuff up from Mexico, but it's worth the delay. Going through Nogales makes it nearly impossible to link an order to us. Just make sure you have some of that tamale pie he likes when he gets here.
"I know, Chester. It's the same every time: pay him, feed him, then send him on his way. You don't have to remind me. Now get that list—I've got to start dinner if you're gonna have something to eat tonight."
Sal Conti was suspicious by nature. His New York cousins, Benito and Danny "The Ice Man" Messana, taught him to always double check whatever he was told if it was important. His financial contribution to the project, run through the guy named Charles, was starting to worry him. Until recently, their plan had been on track. Street people he hated with every bone in his body were being eliminated in greater numbers with each attack. And there'd been no blowback. But then, out of the blue. this woman named Gail Brandon manages to worm her way into the project by offering to help spread the poison around. Now, all of a sudden, she wants to fund the whole operation. That doesn't make sense, why would she do that? Who is she? He knew Catherine had checked her out—but had she missed something? Was this woman on the up and up? He was going to dig deeper and find out. This was too important to ignore. He knew his New York cousins wouldn't like it if he let something get past him that could compromise their efforts to set up legitimate businesses on the West Coast to launder their ill-gotten gains.
Catherine sent Conti a list of the properties supposedly owned by Gail that she'd discovered from her internet search—prime properties in and around downtown Portland. Conti spent the afternoon calling or visiting friends and competitors in commercial real estate, the business arena he was focused on. By cocktail time, he was convinced Gail Brandon was a phony. Not a single one of the dozen people he'd talked to had heard of her. And even more damning, some of the properties listed as belonging to her were owned by someone else—people who said they'd not sold to anyone and still held ownership. The only explanation was that the woman was lying. The key question was why. Who was she really and what was her intention? He intended to find out.
Later that evening, Karla was hanging out at Rosa's firepit talking with some of her fellow campers. They'd finished a meal of chicken stew and day-old bread and were sharing a gallon of red wine, enjoying the peaceful parklike setting far removed from the chaos of the downtown homeless sidewalk campers. When she eventually got to her tent around midnight to turn in, she discovered a message on her phone, which she always left hidden in her tent. It was from Slaggart, instructing her to call as soon as she could.
"Pastor, this is Gail. What's up?"
"Thanks for getting back to me, Gail. I waited up for your call. The people you want to meet have agreed to a visit. Evidently, they're interested in your proposal. They said tomorrow morning. Are you available?"
"I'd have to rearrange a few things, but I could manage. What time and where?
"Ten o'clock. I'll let you know where tomorrow morning. I'll call you at eight." He ended the call without further comment.
Karla was glad to learn that her request to meet the project backers had gotten this far but was puzzled by Slaggart's abruptness. Is he worried about security? Afraid his call will be traced?" Her antennae for detecting something not quite right were on full alert; she called Agent James immediately. "Slaggart just called. I've got a meeting tomorrow at ten with whomever's running the project. He'll let me know at eight where it’s going to be. He seemed different and cut the call short. It was like he was worried the call would be monitored."
James was glad about the meeting but sensed Karla's concern about Slaggart. "He might be worried about a phone tap. He's probably using a burner since his call to you just now didn't register. That could explain why we aren’t learning anything from calls on his regular number—they're just about church stuff. If he or his bosses are suspicious, you'll have to be ready for anything. We need to provide backup, so we'll have to know where the meeting's going to be."
"That shouldn't be a problem. I'll let you know after his eight o'clock call."
"All right, that should work. I'll get a team together tonight. Don't worry, Karla. We'll be there if you need us."
"I know you will, Darrel. Now I've got to get some sleep. Good night."
A blustery west wind drove a cold rain off the Pacific and over the Coast Range to greet the early morning risers who made their homes in Karla's forest-enclosed North Portland homeless camp alongside the Willamette River. By seven-thirty, Karla had had her usual coffee and stale doughnut, was decked out in her trendy business suit, and was in her tent waiting for Slaggart's eight o'clock call. After she found out where the meeting place was, she planned to let James know, then arrange an Uber ride to get her there for the ten o'clock appointment. She'd spent the intervening time going over the storyline the FBI created and planted on the internet. By this point she'd been immersed in the false undercover narrative long enough to almost believe it and felt confident she could persuade the people she was going to meet to accept her proposal. But just as important, she knew FBI agents would be nearby if things went bad. So, considering these factors, Karla was optimistic about the success of her plan.
Slaggart called Karla precisely at eight. "Meet me at the west entrance of Pioneer Square at nine-forty-five. Don't be late. Our people are busy and don't like to be kept waiting."
"Where will we meet?" Karla managed to ask but got no answer since Slaggart cut the call before she spoke. After she realized she'd been cut off, she called James. "I'm supposed to meet him at Pioneer square at a quarter-to-ten. That's all he said."
"He's being cautious. Either these people are extremely careful, or they may suspect you might be a threat," James replied. "We'll be there, and we'll follow you. He'll probably take you somewhere nearby where the others will be waiting. Downtown's not that busy with the pandemic closing everything down, so it'll be easy to follow you on foot. It'll be okay, don't worry."
Karla heard his "Don't worry" refrain but wondered if maybe she should. At least a little bit. Her antennae had just switched to full alert.
Before he ended the call, James said, "Be sure to keep your phone on just in case we have to locate you. That's an unlikely necessity, but we need to play it safe."
Karla was at the Pioneer Square west entrance on Broadway at nine-forty, her purse in one hand, her walking stick in the other. She shifted her gaze left then right along the sidewalk, watching for Slaggart's approach. When he'd not showed by a few minutes after ten, she started to worry that the meeting might be off. Then she heard an insistent honk and glanced at a car that had pulled up to the curb opposite where she was standing. It was Slaggart. When they made eye contact, he waved her over. "Get in," he said through his open window.
While Karla was fastening her seat belt, Slaggart said, "Sorry I'm a bit late. Traffic was bad. I called and told them we'd be late. No problem, though—they'll wait."
"Where are we going? I assumed we'd meet somewhere here in town," Karla said, trying to not seem concerned.
"We're going to where they told me to bring you. It's not far."
When Slaggart turned onto Route 30 heading north along the Columbia River toward the town of Scappoose, Karla grew more anxious. "This doesn't seem very close to me. What's going on, Pastor? Why so far from Portland? Exactly who am I supposed to meet?"
"One of the members of the group has business up here this morning and is taking time to meet you. That's all I know."
"Are we meeting only one member of the group? I thought we'd meet all of them."
"The others may be there as well. I'm not sure. I won’t be involved. I've never met any of them and won't today. They're fanatic about protecting their identity."
The further they traveled the more concerned Karla became; she wanted to look out of the rear window to see if an FBI agent was following but resisted the temptation. "How much further? she asked after another ten minutes.
Slaggart glanced at the odometer then said, "It should only be another mile or so. He's at a property he's thinking of buying. I'll wait in the car while you meet with them."
A few minutes later, Slaggart slowed and turned left onto a dirt side road that led toward a string of low, forest-covered hills. A moment later, Karla glanced around, even out of the back window, as if she were just interested in the surroundings. To her dismay, there was no car behind them—they were alone. Her worry that she might be in danger was growing quickly.
"Who am I supposed to meet?" she asked again, this time more insistently.
"Like I told you, I don't know," Slaggart answered with obvious irritation in his voice.
Suddenly there was a closed chain link fence gate across the road. Slaggart got out and used a key he took from his pocket to unlock a padlock securing a heavy chain. He swung the gate open, got back in the car, drove through, stopped and relocked the gate, then continued on toward a sprawling collection of dilapidated wooden buildings that looked like an abandoned sawmill. "This is the place," he said when he parked in front of a closed, wooden door with a faded, barely readable sign on the wall next to it that said, OFFICE. "They're waiting for you, "Slaggart said after he pressed the door lock switch on his armrest to allow Karla to open the passenger-side door.