Pastor Slaggart called Madeline as soon as he ended the call from Charles. From the desperation revealed in that short conversation with his link to the "Group," as Charles called it, he realized how serious the situation had become and knew he had to come up quickly with a solution to the delay in implementing the plan. The danger from failing the group's demands was far greater than he had thought when a he'd consented to serve as the point man for their scheme few months earlier. A scheme the size of which only now was he comprehending. When he'd agreed to plant the seeds for reducing the population of Portland's homeless squatters in the downtown blocks, he naively assumed that a few suspicious and in his view justified deaths would lead to a quick clearing out of the town's sidewalk and tent-city dwellers, and that out of fear they would leave of their own accord. But he'd been wrong. Instead, the deaths provoked a forceful response from the authorities that surprised him. Evidently, it also surprised the group of business people who'd come up with the idea of scaring off the homeless denizens that were causing downtown business and property values to fall, which for them was unacceptable and something they would never allow, as he now understood, no matter what the cost might be.
From the caller ID Madeline saw that it was Slaggart. She knew he'd want an update in Chester's progress in getting the project back on track. But she had nothing to report. Chester had been in the basement all afternoon and she had no idea what he'd been able to do. So she let the call go to message, even as the pastor's pleading for her to answer became more insistent. Instead, she did what she'd never done before. To look for him, she went down into the forbidden world of Chester's basement laboratories. Laboratories paid for by the Group and designed for one reason and one reason only—the production of industrial quantities of one of the world's most deadly substance—Amazonian poison dart toxin.
Chester didn't care that the Group wanted the toxin for such a monstrous purpose. He couldn't care less about a bunch of homeless degenerates. For him, it was the challenge of scaling up an exquisitely difficult chemical synthesis that required the integration of biological, biochemical, and chemical synthesis and engineering steps, each of which in itself presented unimaginable difficulties. For him, it would be the satisfaction of accomplishing what he believed no one else could do.
"Chester! Where are you? We need to talk," Madeline yelled when she got to the bottom of the stairs. Hearing no answer, she turned the knob on a wide, grey steel door directly in front of her and pushed. To her surprise it swung open. When she stepped inside a small room, she called out for Chester again. Still no answer. Glancing around, she saw what looked like biohazard suites and lab coats hanging on hooks along one wall. There was another door on the opposite side of the room. Thinking he couldn't hear her because of the closed door, she decided to look further to see if she could find him. Picturing scenes from CSI TV programs featuring laboratory workers, she put on one of the lab coats before she tried the next door. It was also unlocked.
"Chester? Are you here?" she hollered when she entered a long, well-lit hallway. She was surprised by the size of the basement—there were a half-dozen doors stretched out in front of her. She felt cool air blowing over her, sensing that it was drafting toward vents spaced along the ceiling. "Chester," she yelled again, louder this time.
After waiting a while with no response, she started along the hall, trying each door as she came to it. The first three were locked, but the fourth yielded when she turned the knob. She eased it open enough to peek inside. Diffuse light revealed a bank of large aquaria on the opposite wall, side by side from floor to ceiling crowding four sturdy shelves. "Chester, are you in here?"
There was no answer, just the hum of air exchange units pulling dank, putrid-smelling air into vents scattered across the ceiling. Curious about what was in the glass tanks, Madeline ventured into the room and tiptoed over to the shelves where she got close enough to look into one of the aquaria that was at eye level. "Oh my god!" The tank held little black and yellow frogs. There were so many she couldn't see the glass bottom, hundreds of them maybe. They were constantly moving, hopping all around, some high enough to bump into the glass plate covering the tank. Chester must have solved the problem of the beetles that he fed to these little guys, she thought. Thank God. Now we can get the project going again.
"Madeline! What the hell are you doing in here?"
Chester's angry yell scared her, and she spun around to face him. But in her sudden pivot, she fell back against the shelf and knocked askew some of the glass lids covering the tanks. When Chester saw what she'd done, he screamed, dropped the two lidded buckets onto the floor, and rushed to where frogs were jumping out of the three jostled containers. Several had landed on Madeline and dozens were hopping across the floor toward the still open door.
"Don't touch them! If you get any of the secretion on your hand and then in your mouth or nose, you'll die." He quickly brushed off the ones clinging to her lab coat with his gloved hands and pushed her away from the shelving. Then he noticed some of the frogs heading to the open door and rushed to slam it shut in time to prevent them from getting away.
"I'm sorry, Chester. You scared me. I was looking for you."
"You shouldn't be down here! Ever!" he said as he frantically gathered the escaped frogs and returned them to their tanks. Take off that lab coat. Leave it here and go back upstairs."
"But I need to know what to tell Pastor Slaggart. I think he's getting desperate for us to get the project going again. He's waiting for me to call."
"He can wait. Right now, just get out of here. Take a shower and use lots of soap. I'll be up later and we can decide what to tell him then."
Madeline discarded the lab coat and rushed out of the door, afraid to evoke further wrath by asking when he'd be coming upstairs.
It was after ten p.m. when Chester finally came upstairs from his basement labs and demanded dinner.
"I just have to warm it up, Honey," Madeline said, getting up from the kitchen table where she'd been waiting for him to finish his work. "I fixed your favorite meatloaf, with Ritz crackers like you told me your mother made it. I've been keeping it warm in the oven."
"I'm hungry," he grunted as he took his usual seat.
"Is everything okay now? Are the frogs making the toxin?" Madeline asked tentatively.
"There's gotta be something to go with the meatloaf. What else is there?" Chester asked, ignoring Madeline's question.
"Mashed potatoes. And Jell-O for dessert."
Madeline took a plate from the oven and put it down in front of Chester "There's plenty more if you want it." Then she sat across from him and remained silent while she watched him eat.
After Chester finished a second bowl of Jell-O and Madeline cleared the table, she repeated her question about the toxin.
Chester drained what was left of the Coke and then, with the hint of a smile, said, "Everything's okay now. I can breed as many beetles as I need. That means I can expand the frog population and make enough toxin to satisfy Slaggart's requirements no matter how many people he wants to kill. He could kill everybody in the whole damn city if he wanted to."
"Oh, Chester, that's wonderful. Pastor Slaggart will be so happy. But I don't think he'd want to kill regular people, do you? He just wants to get rid of the bad ones. He said that's what God wants him to do.
"He's waiting for a call—I'll do it now." She stood and started to leave the kitchen, but then turned back to Chester. "When should I tell him you'll have more?"
"It's too late to call him now. Give him the news tomorrow. And you can tell him that in ten days I'll have enough for a thousand doses for oral consumption, or about four hundred if it's used topically. I can have a lot more than that in the next batch. Tell him that. too. And tell him I need more money. I gotta buy supplies."
The next morning, a taxi dropped Karla off at Slaggart's church a half hour past their prearranged 10 a.m. meeting. When he answered her buzz at the front door, he said, "You're late. I was wondering if you'd changed your mind—maybe had second thoughts.
"Not in the least. I was delayed by a business matter, that's all. Shall we continue yesterday's discussion? Have you thought of how I might help with your project?"
"Yes, I have. But before we take that up, I want to say how impressed I am with your business acumen—you seem to have a talent for commercial real estate. That is if you are the same Gail Brandon that owns all those properties listed under that name."
"I presumed you'd do your homework—yes, that's me. Although I must admit, after my husband's death I just took over the family business and relocated it here to Portland."
"Yes, I saw his obituary. He must have been a good businessman. And you seem to have done well on your own."
'I have—and I don't want my holdings diminished by an invasion of low-lifes destroying the fabric of our city."
"Which brings us to that very subject. I've been wondering if you intend to support our project with more funding. Is that what you have in mind?"
"No. I don't give money to causes I don't know anything about. No, what I have in mind is to become involved in a way that I can use my organizational skills. Make things happen, get things done. Time is slipping by, and I want to help make sure your "goal" is reached sooner than later. I've noticed there's a lull in deaths lately. Lost momentum can be difficult to regain. That's how I can help."
Slaggart was quiet for a moment, perhaps intimidated by Karla's spirited response to his question. He hadn't encountered such forcefulness in Madeline or the women who worked for her. Finally, he said, "Your enthusiasm is appreciated, but I couldn't place you in a position of authority without verifying your capabilities. The people I report to would never allow that, even with a strong recommendation from me. There is, however, an opportunity for you to prove yourself."
"I understand, Pastor. I would feel the same way if our positions were reversed. But would it help if I meet these people you report to?"
"That's out of the question. Their identity is protected. I haven't even met them."
"You don't know who you're working for? I don't like that. Perhaps I should reconsider my offer to help."
"There's no need for that. I communicate with the group through a man I have full access to. He has the authority to speak on their behalf."
"I appreciate the need for extreme secrecy in this situation, but I still don't like it. What is this opportunity, as you describe it, to prove myself?"
"One of our front-line soldiers had to take a leave of absence. You could replace her. You'd be part of a team that prepares and distributes our donations to the homeless community. It's vitally important work—the key to our success."
"Is this what would be called starting at the bottom?"
"Call it what you want, but it's a critical component of our operation. And I assure you, your efforts won't be overlooked."
"Sounds like I have no other choice. When do I start?"
"I'll introduce you to the woman who runs the team. Can you come back this afternoon?'
"I’ll check." Karla took a phone from her Gucci purse and pretended to look at a calendar. "I can be here at three," she said as she returned the phone to her handbag, then left saying anything else.
By sheer chance, Karla's taxi pulled up to the front door of Slaggart's church as Madelaine was getting out of the car she'd parked in a nearby space. When they met at the entrance, Madeline said, "You must be the woman who'll be taking Eunice's place."
"The pastor said something about someone taking a leave of absence, but not her name. I guess that's who I'll replace. Are you the team leader?"
"Yes. I'm Madeline. Come on. Let's find the pastor."
"I'm Gail," Karla said as she followed Madeline into the building. "I'm looking forward to working with you."
"Good. We're going to be busy. We have to make up for lost time," Madeline said as she led Karla to Slaggart's office. She knocked on the closed door. When he yelled, "Come in," she pushed it open and marched up to Slaggart's desk with Karla in tow. "We're back in production." she said."
"Thank God," the pastor responded.
"God? Thank Chester, he's the one who figured out what the problem was," Madeline corrected, then looked at Karla and continued with a torrent of words. "He's my husband. He's a genius. Nothing can stop him when he sets his mind on something. He outsmarted those little beetles and got the frogs back on their diet. Everything's gonna be just fine. Now we can get back to work."
"Madeline! Stop! Gail is new to our project and doesn't need to know these details," Slaggart said, interrupting Madeline's gushing praise of Chester and her revealing information best kept secret.
Slaggart's reprimand quickly brought Madeline back to her usual controlled composure, She looked at Karla and said, "Forget what I just said. All you need to know is that we have to get to work. We have dozens of gloves to dispense to homeless camps. We'll do it tomorrow. We'll meet tomorrow morning at the house where we prepare donations and you can meet the rest of the team and collect gloves to distribute. Maybe you should come along with me your first time."
"I can do that . . . but what do gloves have to do with getting rid of homeless people?"
Slaggart jumped in and said, "Madeline can fill you in on that tomorrow. There's no need to go into details at this time. But right now, I have church business to deal with, so we'll have to bring this meeting to an end Madeline will tell you where to meet."
Madeline gave Karla the address and told her to be there at eight o'clock.
An hour later, Karla was pouring a second cup of stale coffee from an urn that was left from an earlier meeting in one of the small conference rooms at FBI headquarters. She sat down across from Agent Darrel James, who, like her, was waiting for Agent in Charge, Hanna Marx, to join them. A few minutes later, she came in and sat down. She glanced at James, then turned to Karla and said, "Darrel says you've got a lead. Tell me."
"It happened so fast I'm still processing it. The phony material about Gail Brandon that our guys posted on the internet must have been convincing because Slaggart's putting me to work right away. Seems that I'm taking the place of the woman recovered from the river a few days ago. Her name was Eunice. I'm supposed to meet the team tomorrow morning to help distribute gloves. According to the team leader, a middle-aged woman named Madeline, we're soldiers in an army of killers. Apparently, we're the ones who take the poisoned products to whatever sites they've selected. The gloves she mentioned must be contaminated with the poison. But the most important thing I learned is that Madeline's husband is the one who produces the poison. Before Slaggart shut her up, she said he'd just solved a production problem, something to do with beetles and frogs, whatever that's about. Somebody should check that out right away."
"Good work, Karla," Marx said, "this may be the break we've been waiting for. I—"
"James interrupted Marx and with urgency in his voice and said, "If the gloves are what you suspect, we can't let them be taken and used by anyone. That's gonna be a problem. But we can't do anything to prevent that from happening that would cast suspicion on you."
"Right. But if we intercept them somehow, and then there're no deaths reported in the papers, these crazies will know they've been compromised, and that would come back to me," Karla replied at once.
"How about this?" James said after a moment. "Our agents follow you soldiers when you take the gloves out to spread around. We'll grab all the gloves as soon as whoever drops them off leaves the scene and before any homeless people have a chance to touch them. As far as reported deaths go, we'll put out false reports over the next few days listing fatalities. Our PR people can make it sound real official. The local papers won't doubt casualty numbers released by the U.S. government and the Portland Police Bureau."
Marx was quiet for a bit, then said, "The other option is to raid your meeting with the team tomorrow morning, arrest them based on possession of the contaminated gloves, and interrogate them to learn about others involved in this operation."
Karla took a swig of coffee, made a face, then pushed the cup away. "The problem with that scenario is that the soldiers probably don't know anything about the other people involved, especially about who Slaggart reports to. There's gotta be some high-powered backers behind this hideous plot, the ones who are funding it. We won't get those bastards through the soldiers. No. Let's go with Darrel's plan. It'll give me time to get deeper into the operation."
Marx shook her head. "The risk is that there'll be a slip-up and that someone will use those gloves before we can confiscate them, and that they'll die. We can't let that happen. The FBI can't knowingly poison our citizens. Not even for the greater good."
"That's my responsibility . . . to prevent that from happening," James answered. "We'll watch those gloves as if they were the most important things on the planet. Which, as far as I'm concerned, tomorrow morning they will be. I guarantee we'll make this work—it's too important not to. Believe me, I don't want to be a murderer."
"All right, then. Do it." Marx said, then stood and looked at Karla. "You pulled a rabbit out of the hat once before, I sure as hell hope you can do it again," she added, then left without more comment.