Undercover Agent: A Helping Hand Episode Eight - By Howard Schneider

The morning after Karla had met with Madeline and Pastor Slaggart at the church (which was when Madeline announced that Chester had solved the toxin production problem) a taxi dropped Karla at a house in Southeast Portland where Madeline's team would prepare to distribute the toxin-contaminated gloves for distribution. The house was screened from view by a thick holly hedge that ran along a chain link fence surrounding the entire yard. Before opening the gate to the property, she glanced down the block and saw the unmarked cars scattered among other vehicles parked along the street. Each car had two FBI field agents in it. 

"You're right on time," Madeline said when she opened the front door in response to Karla's buzz. "The others are downstairs. Come on," she added as she led Karla to a set of stairs. 

The basement was partitioned into two separate areas separated by a wall with a single door. The stairs emptied into an open space with shelving, cabinets, and worktables. A large map of the greater Portland area hung on one wall and red pushpins marked dozens of locations. Karla noticed packs of disposable surgical gloves, masks, and gowns on the shelves, and bundles of cardboard boxes and paper bags were piled in a corner. The three women sitting at a big table stopped talking when Madeline and Karla got to the bottom of the stairs. 

"Ladies, this is Gail. She's taking Eunice's place." Madeline said, then introduced each of the women: Sheila, Margaret, and Terri. 

After a few minutes of getting-to-know-you chit-chat, Karla glanced at the zip-locked baggies full of cream-colored cloth gloves piled on the table. "Those must be the gloves we're going to distribute this morning. They look harmless, but I know they're not. How are we going to do this?" 

Madeline answered at once. "We'll each take two of these packs. There's toxin that looks like talcum powder in each glove. When someone puts one on, the powder will spread over their hand. It's formulated to be absorbed through the skin, but it'll take longer to kill them than if they swallowed it. We'll be long gone before they know what hit them." 

"Won't someone notice us leaving the gloves and describe us to the police? Kala asked. 

"We learned from Eunice's mistake. We'll wear wigs and dark glasses. You can use makeup if you want to. It's important to not draw attention, so try to wait until there's only a few people around, better yet, none. Be quick, and don't make eye contact with anyone. Be as inconspicuous as possible—no loud or fancy clothing, and don't talk to anyone. In and out. Fast, but not so fast you'd be noticed." 

An hour later the five women came out of the gated yard carrying crumpled brown grocery sacks, got into their cars, and drove off. With a brown wig that partially obscured her face, dark glasses, and dressed differently, the agents didn't recognize Karla, although they knew which one she was since they knew she'd be with another woman. Each of the others left alone. It was relatively easy for the agents to follow the women without being detected and observe them leave the packs of gloves where they'd be found by intended victims. Their plan to snatch the gloves before anyone took them worked, so no one was exposed to the toxin. Only once, at a camp alongside a roadway, did an agent have to take the baggie of gloves away from a potential victim before they had a chance to open it. 

When their distributions were done, Madeline dropped Karla off at a North Portland transit station. Before they separated, she gave Karla her cell phone number and entered Karla's into her phone's contact list. "We should have enough toxin for a major attack in a week or so. I'll call you if anything comes up in the meantime." 

As Madeline pulled into traffic, a bus slipped into the space she vacated, but cut it too close and crashed into the sedan that had moved out from the curb behind Madeline at the same time. Little did the bus driver know that the car he'd just crumpled was being driven by an FBI agent intent on following Madeline to wherever she went next. 

When Madeline got back to her house and pulled into the garage, the first thing she did, as the other women on her team did, was exchange the stolen license plates Pastor Slaggart provided them with for her real ones. It was a precaution she thought was silly but did it anyway to satisfy the pastors fixation about never being identified. "We can't be too careful," he always said. 

At FBI headquarters later that afternoon, Agent James was debriefing Karla when Agent in Charge Hanna Marx joined them. Dispensing with the usual greeting, she got right to the point. "Darrel told me the plan went smoothly this morning. I'd like to hear your version of what went down, starting at the beginning." 

"I met the women on the team, as they refer to it, Madeline and three others, at the house where they keep the goods that are ready to distribute to the target sites. I don't know how the targets are chosen, but I'd be.t the woman named Madeline decides that. She's the pack leader. I gave Agent James the first names of the three others and their descriptions. I don't know any of their last names—they were never mentioned. 

"Each of us got two sealed packs of cloth gloves that had toxin inside them. The poison would be absorbed through the skin of whoever put them on, and death would occur about half an hour later. We took precautions not to be recognized and were careful not to attract attention when we left the gloves where they'd be considered contributions like other things left for anyone to take, like food or clothing." 

James interrupted and said, "Our guys were able to see where each pack was left and took them before anyone was able to open the baggies the gloves were packed in. They got photos in each case. We’ve already sent gloves to the labs we're working with to identify the toxin. Unfortunately, the agent tailing Madeline, the woman Karla was with, was unable to follow her to where she would have gone after the gloves were dropped off—his vehicle was put out of commission by a bus when she dropped Karla at a MAX station. The other problem was that the license plates on all the women's cars were stolen, so there's no way to get an address for her. But our agents followed the other women to their homes, so we know where they live and can find out their names. We can pick them up any time we want to." 

"Congratulations are in order to both of you, this is a major breakthrough. It puts us deeper inside the operation—samples of the toxin, the phony minister, and the distribution team. Although there's still no link to who is producing the toxin, or where." 

"I think Madeline is the link to that. There's also the issue of who's supporting this plot," Karla chimed in. "Someone has to be financing it. Slaggart's two-bit strip mall church couldn't. And one time he mentioned that he reports to someone, but quickly cut off that conversation. We need to find out who that is." 

"We need to monitor his calls. The evidence we have should be enough to convince a judge to approve a request," James said. 

"I'll try to get closer to Slaggart, and to Madeline, as well," Karla said. Maybe I can move up the chain of command in this perverted little army. There's one more thing. Madeline told Slaggart they'd have enough toxin in ten days for a major attack, as she put it—thousands of doses, she said." 

Marx gave Karla the go-ahead to try to insinuate herself into Slaggart's link to whoever he was taking orders from. She told James to prepare a consent request for monitoring Slaggart's cell phone, then instructed him to get the PR people working on a fake press release about more deaths. "Coordinate with Captain Tabor and the Portland police. And let me know when the scientists have results from the powder analysis," she said as she left the room, leaving Karla and James to figure out how to get all that done as quickly as possible. 

Pastor Slaggart was beaming with satisfaction the following morning when he called Charles, his contact with the mysterious "Group" that was controlling the puppets responsible for carrying out their plan to drastically reduce Portland's homeless population. "Did you see the Oregonian this morning?" he asked. "They reported sixty-seven deaths in the Tri-County homeless population yesterday." 

"How'd you get this phone number?" Charles said, anger underscoring each word. "You shouldn't be calling me. We can't be too careful: I'll call you when we need to talk." 

Acknowledging Charles' anger, Slaggart said. "It's the number you called me from a few days ago. It was in my call log. I just wanted to make sure you saw the news. We're back in business." 

"Good. I saw the paper this morning. I'm sure the group will be pleased. I'll call you from another phone in a few days." 

"One more thing," Slaggart said before Charles could end the call. "Chester needs supplies. He's out of money." 

"I'll take care of it. And get yourself some throw-away phones—don't use yours anymore. Those deaths are gonna turn up the heat. Be careful and stay under the radar." Charles cut the call, then removed the burner phone's sim card and flushed it down the toilet. 

                                                                                                                 

At FBI headquarters, Marx and James were on the phone with Dr. Sarah Musetti, the Stanford University chemist who had identified the toxin residue in some of the victims as a batrachotoxin derivative a week earlier. Musetti was summarizing the results of the analysis she'd done on the powder inside the gloves the agents intercepted the day before. "It's closely related to batrachotoxin. The only difference is an alkyl sidechain attached to the B ring—it's lipophilicity allows the molecule to cross cutaneous barriers." 

"Can you translate that into English, Dr. Musetti?" Marx asked impatiently. 

"Sorry, it means the toxin has been chemically modified so it will be absorbed through the skin and get into the blood stream. It's a clever modification. Whoever is making this knows what they're doing—and must have some expensive safety equipment, like hoods and a state-of-the-art filtration system. The big question is where he, or she, is getting the toxin to work with. It appears they have large quantities for a toxin this scarce. 

"What do you mean by that?" James asked. 

"This chemical substance, batrachotoxin, is incredibly rare, difficult to synthesize, and would be prohibitively expensive. So, the question is, what's the killer's source? Answer that and you might be closer to catching him." 

"It's a poison dart toxin, isn't it? Where do natives get it?" Marx asked. 

"From a certain type of Amazonian frog. They excrete it onto their skin—it protects them from predators." 

"Do you think our killer could have some of those frogs? That he could be getting it that way?" 

"I have no idea. But it's certainly possible. In fact, maybe it's more likely he's doing that than making it from scratch. He could be collecting it from frogs and then making whatever chemical modifications he wants for specific purposes. Like topical absorption, delivery by inhalation, or whatever. If it's administered orally, it would have to be stable in the GI tract and be absorbed into the circulation. That would definitely require some chemical modification." 

"So we need to find whoever has a bunch of Amazonian frogs and a high-tech chemistry lab, and knows how to do all this chemistry stuff, right?" 

"Yes. Like the person I mentioned last time we talked. Someone named Rostislov Roskovich, or maybe goes by the name Chester Rose." 

"We've issued an APB for him with both names, but so far nothings turned up. If he's the one, he's doing a good job of hiding." 

The conversation continued until Agent James had an updated list of the types of chemical reagents and equipment such a person would need to carry out chemical modifications like the ones described by Dr, Musetti. 

"Let us know if you think of anything else that would be helpful. And thank you for you help," Marx said as she ended the call. "All right James. get busy on that list. If we can't find out who's got the equipment, maybe we can find who's buying those kinds of chemicals. Ask the procurement department to help you. They know their way around the vendor world." 

That same morning, sitting alone in the same isolated clearing not far from the camp and overlooking the Willamette River, where she and Baku used to go for private conversations, Karla kept replaying what Pastor Slaggart said about his contact with the group which was behind the killings. That's who I gotta get to. If this group, or whatever it is, is as clever as it would seem, they're not gonna be sloppy enough to be caught on phones, or any other way of communicating. They'll be using nontraceable throw-aways. And they'll be using an intermediary to keep themselves as far away from the plot as possible. That must be the person Slaggart referred to. So, I have to get to that person, and  my only way in is through Slaggart himself. 

Karla pushed the buzzer button when she found that the front door of Slaggart's church was locked. A minute later he appeared, unlocked and opened it, but blocked her way in. 

""What's the urgency, Gail? All you said on the phone was that we need to talk. Sounded ominous. Have you changed your mind about working with us? That could be a big mistake if you have." 

"Slow down, Pastor. That's not it at all. Far from it, in fact. Yesterday was what I had hoped it might be. No. It's something else altogether." 

Slaggart stepped aside to let her in. "Let's go to my office." 

Staring at Karla across his desk, Slaggart asked, "All right. What's so urgent that you're willing to leave your business concerns and taxi all the way down here? And, by the way, why don't you use a car. Don't you drive?" 

"That's a long story—for another day. Now, I want to make you an offer." 

"An offer? What kind of offer?" 

"Money. Lots of it." 

Slaggart didn't say anything, just stared at her with a skeptical look." 

"Like I said before, yesterday proved that you and whoever you report to are serious about cleaning up our city. But just spreading a few dozen gloves around isn't going to do it. We need to expand the effort. Get it done faster. And that will take money. I'm willing to fund this entire operation." 

If Slaggart was shocked by Karla's offer, he didn't show it. "That would be a lot of money. What we're doing isn't cheap." 

"I realize that," she replied, "but I've got more money that I know what to do with. I'd rather use it for this than just let it earn piss-ant interest in the market. If we don't get rid of the scum ruining downtown, I won't be able to fulfill my late husband's dream of creating one of the most valuable real estate empires in the nation. I've made a good start here in Portland and I'm not going to let an invasion of drug-using, filthy street rats screw it up." 

Slaggart looked pensive for a moment before replying. Frankly," he said, "I'm not sure how to respond to your proposal, Gail. I'll have to talk to someone else about it. This would be a major change in how things are done. I don't know what to tell you. I'll look into it right away." 

Karla nodded, then added, "There is one condition, though. I'll put up the money only after I meet whoever's in charge. I'm not turning over hundreds of thousands of dollars to a mystery man, or whoever it turns out to be. I want to know who I'm dealing with. That's the only way I do business."

1 comment

  • Silver Gladstar
    Silver Gladstar ptld
    Gosh this is an exciting story! I'm worried for Karla.

    Gosh this is an exciting story! I'm worried for Karla.

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