Undercover Agent: A Helping Hand, Episode Two - By Howard Schneider

Captain Tabor was engrossed in the Oregonian's lead article about thirty-seven dead homeless persons discovered around midnight when he heard the unmistakable tap-tap of Karla Hammer's walking stick announcing her approach to his table in the back corner of their usual restaurant meeting spot. Most of the bodies were found within a couple of miles of a homeless dayshelter in Gresham, a suburb a few miles east of Portland. As with previous cases, there was no discernable cause of death, no physical trauma. It was described as if the hearts just stopped beating. Tissue and blood samples would be analyzed, but all such analyses before had shown nothing—no detectable poisons or toxins, no pathogenic organism . . .  nothing. He didn't expect anything different this time. 

Karla took a chair across from Tabor, poured coffee into the cup already waiting for her, then said, "There was a note from Agent James under the barrel this morning—more deaths he said. He knew we were meeting this morning and wants to know how you and I are gonna put an end to this mass murder scourge. That's his words, not mine. Whatever. You got any bright ideas?" 

Tabor folded the paper shut, looked her in the eyes, then said, "Yeah, I do. Seems to me you have to go under cover. That's what you are isn't it, an undercover agent? How else are we going to find out who's killing these people? And there's no doubt about it, somebody's doing the killing all right. Nothing natural about these deaths. They're using something that leaves no trace. Some evil bastard must be on a mission to eliminate those who he, or she, thinks are burdens on society and should be done away with. A psychopath serial killer, but, unfortunately, one who just might be smart enough to get away with it, at least long enough to leave a lot of bodies in their wake." 

"Okay, I get that. And I'm ready to do whatever needs to be done. But, what exactly might that be? I can't just wander around town asking questions, looking for clues. hoping to stumble across the killer." 

"No, of course not. We need to focus. Maybe a good place to start would be where this latest flurry of killings occurred— in the vicinity of that shelter in Gresham." 

"That makes sense. I could volunteer. Shelters are always looking for people to help keep the places running, especially for free. I've been in enough of them to know how they operate. I'd try to see if there's a connection between the shelter and the deaths. It'd be too much of a coincidence if there's not." 

"I agree. All but two of the thirty-seven were found either at the shelter or nearby. You can get there on the Max, there's a station nearby." 

"Yeah, I know. I used to panhandle around there. There's lots of homeless in that area now." 

"Like everyplace else," Tabor said. 

While Tabor and Karla were working out details of how Karla would approach the Gresham homeless shelter as a volunteer, a middle age man and his wife were in their kitchen sharing the last of the coffee she'd made after he'd come up from his basement lab for breakfast. "We made the headline again this morning, honey. You did good," the woman said proudly. 

"Looks like you did, too. How many this time?" he asked. 

"The paper said thirty-seven. But we'd do a lot better than that if we had more of that stuff you're making." 

"Thirty-seven's pretty good. But I do realize how impatient you can be when you get a good thing going. How much you want to get rid of all those deadbeat scavengers who refuse to live like regular people—all two-thousand of them here in Portland. I know you want to do it as fast as you can, but I have to produce larger amounts of the toxin. I keep tweaking the production process, scaling it up. Maybe another month, two at the most, you'll have as much as you can use. You and your girlfriends just keep doing what you're doing, figuring out more ways to dispense it to the targets, and I'll keep doing what I'm doing. We'll have this problem taken care of before you know it. Won't be long till homelessness will be nothing more than a memory of what used to be a major problem. A problem eliminated by an anonymous band of the Lord's earthly angles." 

The man shoved back from the table, stood, and walked across the room to the basement door. He started to unlock it, but paused, turned back to the woman, and asked, "What's for lunch?" 

"I thought I'd make up a batch of buttermilk biscuits. There's chicken gravy left from last night. I know how you liked it." 

"I did. You do make good gravy. I'd like a Coca Cola with it. Call me when it's time to eat." 

After he opened the door, he started to step across the threshold, but then turned back to the woman again. "Do we still have some Coca Cola?" 

"I bought a case yesterday. It's in the garage." 

Satisfied that all was in order, he pulled the door shut and went down into his private world, already thinking about the ratio of catalyst to reactant for the next phase of a largescale production process. 

Early that afternoon, Karla sat at a small conference table across from Ms. Harriet Mulvaney, manager of the Shining Light Shelter. Karla was dressed for the part: longish skirt, modest blouse, sensible flats. Her short hair was combed, and her nails were trimmed and clean. Ms. Mulvaney laid on the table the application form Karla had filled out, along with letters of reference Karla brought with her. "You certainly meet our requirements for volunteers, Mrs. Crane. Your experience working at the shelter in Denver should be very helpful. We're always in need of more hands. Seems like there's never enough. When could you start?" 

"Tomorrow would be fine for me, if the center is open on Saturdays. My husband is on a three-month assignment in Alaska and I'm anxious to get out of the house during the day. Is that too soon?" 

"Not at all. And we are open seven days a week. The death of many of our flock has upset some of our volunteers and I'm worried we're going to be short-handed. There's plenty for you to do. To start with, we could use your help with the breakfast and lunch rushes. We open at six. Can you make it that early?" 

"I'll be here at six," Karla said as she rose to leave. 

"Oh, Mrs. Crane. I'm just curious. How did you hear about us?" 

"I saw the headline about the deaths in this morning's Oregonian. And call me Susan. We should be on a first name-basis if I'm going to work here." 

"All right, then, Susan. See you in the morning." 

Meanwhile, at the FBI's Quantico forensic pathology laboratory, Dr. Bruce Magnusson frowned as he impatiently watched the results spool out of the Mass Spectrometer printer. "Still nothing. What the hell's going on with these killings? There's gotta be a molecule responsible for these deaths—there's no other plausible explanation. There should be at least a trace in these blood and tissue samples. Whatever the causative agent is, it's either so damn potent that the lethal dose is below the detection limit of this multi-million-dollar machine, or else, after it causes its damage, it's destroyed in the body or eliminated in the urine or maybe feces. That would be pretty unlikely, though. I've never seen anything like this before, and I've seen a lot." 

Syble, his lead technician, scanned the printout he held out to her, then said, "There's nothing in the blood, all right. Shouldn't there be a detectable metabolite in the victims' urine?" 

"The problem is getting good samples. They should be collected as soon as possible after death for the analysis to be valid." 

"Postmortem urine collection during the autopsies wouldn't be a problem. Want me to follow up with the Portland police?" 

"Yes, today. But it's still not the same as getting a sample immediately after the victim transpires. But it's better than nothing. Let me know what they say." 

"What about fecal samples?" 

"Let's see what the urine says first. The likelihood of fecal elimination is so low the Portland forensic guys would probably think we were nuts." 

"Yes sir, I agree. That would be unusual." 

Later that afternoon, back in Portland, in the living room of an inconspicuous one-story house in a modest southeast Portland neighborhood, the woman who was the biochemist's wife, Madeline, was trying to quiet the four other middle aged women who were talking and laughing about how big the Gresham kill was. "Ladies, please, settle down. We have to decide how to do the next distribution. Chester told me this morning he thinks we can have more product the day after tomorrow, Sunday, maybe twice as much as last time. A score of thirty-seven was a good number, and a new record for us, but we have to do a lot better than that if we're going to meet our goal of two hundred a week by Easter—that's only five months from now." 

"Can't we do it the same way Sheila did for Gresham?" one of the ladies, Margaret, asked, looking around at the others. "Add Chester's powder to more cookies and donate them to a different place? We haven't done anything in Beaverton yet." 

"That probably would work, Margaret, but I think it would be better to use a different way to distribute the toxin this time. Doing it the same way twice in a row could cause suspicion. Somebody might connect donated cookies in each event," the woman said. 

"How about putting the power in all those gloves we bought from that website?" one of the women asked. "You said Chester told you he could formulate the poison in such a way that it could be absorbed through skin. This cold weather means lots of those drug addicts and lowlifes will want anything they can get for free to keep their filthy hands warm. We have six dozen of those gloves. We could sprinkle a little bit of the powder inside each pair, then drop them off at a shelter." 

"That is a good idea, Eunice. But we'd have to be awfully careful about handling it." 

Eunice answered at once, thrilled to have her suggestion taken seriously. "We can use the exhaust hoods Chester set up in the basement. And wear those cute paper jump suits. It'd be fun." 

Madeline glanced around at the others, then, noticing no objections, said, "All right, Eunice. This can be your project. If you could have everything ready by Sunday, we could drop off the contaminated gloves next week. Can you do it that soon?" 

"Yes. If some of you will help." 

When two of the other ladies, Margaret and Terri, offered to help Eunice, Madeline gave final approval for the project, ended that portion of the meeting, then suggested they get on with their knitting. They had promised to have two dozen caps for premature infants done for Emanuel Hospital by Saturday, and they certainly didn't want to shirk their volunteering obligations to the hospital. 

The next morning, Karla was sitting on the shelter's front door stoop when Harriet Mulvaney approached with two paper cups of coffee. "You weren't kidding about being here at six." she said, handing one of the cups to Karla. She punched a code into the keypad, and they went into a dimly lit hallway, then into the main room. "Mrs. Chaudry will be here in half an hour to start breakfast. We should have about sixty this morning. You can set up the tables and chairs while I get ready for the day," Harriet said. "Then do whatever Mrs. Chaudry says. She'll be your boss today." 

"Okay," Karla said, then headed toward where tables and chairs were stored along a far wall. 

At six-thirty-five a middle age woman in an orange pantsuit came into the main room, stood for a moment surveying the tables and chairs arranged in a perfectly-spaced grid, then called out, "You must be Susan. Harriot told me about you." 

"Good morning, Mrs. Chaudry. Yes, I'm Susan. I understand you will be my boss. I'm happy to meet you." 

"Okay. Let's get started. We have a lot to do. The doors open for breakfast in an hour." 

Karla followed Mrs. Chaudry into the kitchen, already looking forward to later that morning when she could probe the woman for what she knew about the day before the bodies had turned up.

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