Undercover Agent: A Helping Hand Epi 3 - By Howard Schneider 

Karla, Agent James, and Captain Tabor had been sequestered in an FBI headquarters conference room in Portland, Oregon, most of Sunday morning, reviewing everything they knew about the mysterious deaths of Portland's homeless, when Agent in Charge Hanna Marx came into the room. She poured a cup of coffee and took an empty chair. "Somebody, bring me up to date." 

James spoke first. "As of yesterday, Karla's a volunteer at the shelter in Gresham, the one near where the last bunch of bodies was found. She's made friends with the woman who cooks the breakfasts and lunches. It's just a day shelter and doesn't do dinners or overnight stays." 

"What good's that gonna do?" Marx asked." These killings haven't turned up in the same area more than once. They're all over the place, somewhere different every time. And the Portland police have already been through that place with a fine-tooth comb." 

"You're right," Karla chimed in. "We know that. But by getting to know the people that run the shelter, we thought maybe I could get a better idea of how the Gresham victims might have been exposed to whatever it was that killed them. Maybe something PPD missed. You're right that there's no way to know where the perpetrators might strike next, if there is a next strike. But at least Gresham's a place for me to start. 

"Okay, I get that. So, what have you found out that the Portland police haven't?" Marx asked. 

"Nothing yet. Mrs. Chaudry, the woman who prepares the breakfasts and lunches the shelter provides free every day, recognized photos of most of the victims. She remembers them from the lunch service that same day," Karla said. 

Marx interrupted, "How did she recognize them? Wouldn't she have been in the kitchen cooking?" 

She serves, too—along with a couple of volunteers. The volunteers remember some of the victims, as well. It appears pretty certain that some of the people found dead ate lunch at the shelter." 

"So, this Mrs. Chaudry is the murderer?" 

"Unlikely," Tabor said. "Her background's clean. And she had no access to the previous homeless who died elsewhere from the same cause. And not all the people who had lunch there were found dead. Sixty-seven people were served—only thirty-seven bodies were found." 

Karla continued. "Lunches sometimes include items donated by people, like cookies or other deserts. It so happened that day that there was a gift box of cookies donated anonymously. But they weren't noticed until one of the volunteers found them in the afternoon, on a table where the coffee urn is stationed. Nobody at the shelter knows anything about who left it. A gift card was signed 'A Friend.' The shelter doesn't have a security camera system, either. Unfortunately, there're no cookies left that could be analyzed. They'd all been eaten by closing time. The box they were in is long gone. We can't count them out as a source of poisoning." 

"What has the Quantico lab found out about a poison?" Marx asked. 

"Still no trace of any kind of poison in any of the victim's blood samples. They want urine samples from any new victims," James said. 

"Will the pathologist do that?" Marx asked. 

"No problem. I talked to him yesterday, They're gonna try and get samples from as many of the corpses as possible as soon as possible. They'll express them to Quantico." Tabor said. 

Marx shuffled through the rest of the papers in the folder, then said, "All right. What are you going to do now?" 

Tabor answered at once. "Last night we issued a news bulletin requesting help from the public—seeking information about a donation of cookies to the Gresham shelter Friday. We've sent warnings to all area shelters about anonymous food donations. Karla's going back to the shelter this afternoon to dig around some more. Other than that, all we can do is wait . . . and hope there isn’t another attack." 

Twenty miles south of the FBI headquarters, as the clock on the back wall of a one-room, strip mall church struck noon, Pastor Slaggart ended his hell and brimstone Sunday sermon with a version of the same prayer he always ended with. "Lord, we beseech you to continue guiding us as we clear the way for your return to this world. We know it will be soon and it will be here in Portland, a godless city overrun by disciples of the devil himself. We are using your strength to carry out your instructions. We will keep our promise to rid Portland of the homeless sinners who foul its streets, refuse to follow in your footsteps, and refuse to prepare for your coming—those who putrefy the air with disdain for your holiness. We will prevail and clear the way for your return. Amen." 

Four of the twenty-odd church members remained in their pews while Pastor Slaggart stood at the door out to the parking strip saying goodbye to the other worshipers as they left the building. When he returned to the room used as a sanctuary, he joined Madeline's team of dedicated women. "I missed Madeline today. Is she ill?" 

"Oh, no, Pastor. She's with Chester. He's supposed to have more of the powder today. Madeline will bring it to us this afternoon so we can get ready for the next strike," Eunice answered proudly. 

"Wonderful," the pastor replied. "I'm sure you'll be thrilled to know that this morning God told me he is pleased with your progress and he will keep protecting all of you, so you'll be able to finish the task He's given us." 

"Would you like to help us today, Pastor?" 

"No, I don't think so, Eunice. We each have our role to play. It's like in the army. My job is to communicate with God about how best to carry out His will. Yours is to do what He instructs us to do. And Chester's job is to give us the sacred substance to use in following His instructions. You do understand that, don't you, Eunice?" 

'"Yes, Pastor. I understand. We all do," Eunice said, glancing at the others. "God is the general. You are the captain. Chester is the quartermaster. And we are the soldiers." 

"That's right, Eunice. Now—shall we pray?" 

It was half-past twelve when Karla got to the Gresham shelter. She found Mrs. Chaudry and two volunteers serving the last few meals. "How can I help?" Karla asked. 

"We're about done with lunch. Why don't you check in with Harriette? She told me we're short a front desk receptionist today. Maybe you could fill in." 

Although Karla wasn't familiar with every aspect of the shelter's operation, Harriette convinced her she'd do just fine answering calls and directing visitors to where they needed to go. And that she'd be in her office if Karla came up against something she couldn't handle on her own. 

Harriette had been right. Throughout the afternoon, Karla had had no trouble managing phone inquiries and the inflow of people seeking a safe space to escape from a cold rain, find unlimited hot coffee and snacks, and hear a kind word instead of being assailed with menacing stares and hostile threats. Then, just before closing time, which was five p.m., a woman came through the front entrance and approached the desk. Rainwater dripped from her plastic rainhat and puddled on the floor. 

"May I help you?" Karla asked, quickly taking stock of the woman. She obviously wasn't a street person–the quality of her raincoat and designer handbag made that clear. 

"It's about all those people who were killed. I'm not sure, but I might have seen a person fitting the description in yesterday's Oregonian. When I read the article, nothing came to mind. But just now, as I was walking by your front door on my way to the restaurant in the next block, it came back to me. I nearly bumped into a woman who was carrying what looked like a cake box. She had short brown hair and was about my height–I'm five-six. I opened the door for her since she was holding the box with both hands. She seemed to be in a hurry." 

"What day was that?" 

"Friday. In the middle of the afternoon. Around three—I was on my way to the optometrist on the corner." 

Karla remained calm but spoke with urgency. "Mrs. . . .?" 

"Clemson, Cora" 

"Karla jotted the name down, then said, "Mrs. Clemson, you need to give this information to the authorities immediately. I have the phone number of someone at the FBI who will want to talk to you as soon as possible. Here, call this—" 

"I'll do it tomorrow. I'm meeting friends for dinner," Mrs. Clemson interrupted when Karla extended her hand holding a slip of paper with Agent James' mobile number written on it. Mrs. Clemson took the slip of paper from Karla and turned toward the front door. 

Karla jumped up from her chair, stepped from behind the desk, and blocked Mrs. Clemson from leaving. "I must insist. You have to talk to this man now. Your information is too important to wait until tomorrow. It could save lives." Karla then grasped Mrs. Clemson by the elbow and led her to a small meeting room, told her to sit down, then called James herself. 

Forty-five minutes later, while Agent James was questioning Mrs. Clemson at the Gresham shelter, Eunice and her two companions were unpacking boxes of white, cloth work gloves and placing them inside the three HEPA- and charcoal-filtered exhaust hoods in the basement of their meeting house in Southeast Portland—24 pair in each hood. 

Eunice finished the call she was on, then said, "Madeline should be here in about twenty minutes. She said there's enough powder for all 72 pair, but we have to be careful not to put too much in any of them. Exactly 10 milligrams. Use those little scoops Chester made. Just sprinkle it inside each glove. It's the same color as the gloves, so it won’t show. And be very careful. Even though the toxin is diluted a hundredfold by the additives to make it absorbable through skin, it's still strong enough to kill, so we can't let it get on us. Not even a tiny little smidgeon. If there's any left over, we'll save it for another attack—we have to make every precious little bit count." 

Later that same day, at 7:17 p.m. to be precise, Karla, James, and Tabor were back in the conference room at FBI headquarters. "Come in," James said when there was a knock on the closed door. 

A young woman entered and said, "Here's the composite of the woman Mrs. Clemson described. Her memory seemed good, although she didn't remember, or notice, the woman's eye color. She was cooperative, even though she was pissed off about missing her dinner date. But I do think this drawing is pretty accurate—at least as accurate as these things usually are." She handed the copies to James and he gave one to each of the others. 

Karla studied the color-tinted, full-body drawing. "She looks to be in her mid-fifties, Caucasian, brown hair, cut in a short bob, thin face, but not extremely so. No cosmetics, no glasses, a mole on her left cheek close to her nose. She doesn't look overweight, but not thin, either." 

The young woman interrupted, "Mrs. Clemson said she was the same height as she is, five feet-six." 

Karla nodded, then continued, "She's dressed modestly in jeans, or maybe slacks, a green sweater, an unzipped, black Columbia Sportswear rain jacket. Is this good enough to issue as an all-points bulletin?" 

"It looks good enough to me," Tabor remarked. "But it doesn't show what Mrs. Clemson described as a look of determination on the woman's face, totally ignoring Mrs. Clemson as she stood holding the door open for her. As if she were on a mission." 

"The sketch artist was at a loss how to capture that look, so she didn't try," the young woman who brought in the reproduction said. "Should I ask her take another stab at it?" 

"No. We gotta get this out as soon as we can. Anyway, it would be hard to capture that impression in a drawing like this. We'll go with what we have," James said. "Thank you—and tell the artist she did good work." He glanced at the others, and they nodded in agreement. "Put this out as an APB . . ., ASAP," he then added. 

On the opposite coast, it was 11:45 p.m. when Dr. Bruce Magnusson got the final printout from the mass spectrometer analysis of the last of the seven urine samples the pathologist had been able to collect from the Gresham victims. The samples had been taken from corpses still retained in Portland's police department morgue and flown to Quantico Sunday morning. Magnusson's lab had worked diligently all-day Sunday, running every feasible analytical method at their disposal. "It’s the same pattern, consistent for all the samples. Small molecule fragments that seem to be derived from some kind of steroid, and a few other fragments that are unrelated. There's nothing that could be linked to any poisons I'm aware of. I've never seen anything like this." 

"What about other labs? Would any of your mass spec colleagues have seen this kind of pattern?" his assistant, Syble, asked. 

"Maybe. It's worth a try. I'll email these spectra to all of them. I'll do it now." Magnusson hurried to his office, typed out a history of the case, attached the analytical results, and sent it to seven of the best analytical chemists and five of the top natural products chemists in the country, all of whom were also experts in mass spectrometry. 

"Let's hope tomorrow brings a better understanding of what kind of molecule these fragments might be derived from," Magnusson said to Syble, who was shutting down the mass spectrometer, as he closed the lab door behind him and headed home.

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.

Undercover Agent: A Helping Hand - By Howard Schneider 

By Howard Schneider 

Episode One  

FBI Agent In Charge Hannah Marx's intercom flashed. Her assistant's voice came through loud and clear. "Miss Hammer's still waiting in room four."  

"I'm on my way," Marx answered as she rose from her desk chair.  

Before she was halfway across the room, the intercom flashed again. " Captain Tabor's on line two. He said it's important."  

"Damn. All right. I'll take it."  

Meanwhile, Karla Hammer sat in a small conference room on the top floor of the Portland FBI main facility waiting for Marx to join her. Karla didn't mind that Marx was running late. The coffee was good, she had no place else to be, and she welcomed a chance to be alone and reflect on how she'd arrived at this unexpected moment in her life. A life that had been full of misfortune: unknown parents, a heartless orphanage, half a dozen abusive foster homes, erratic schooling, a two-year stint in prison, fifteen years of homelessness. But now—at the age of 35—she was about to start a career as an FBI undercover agent or more accurately, an Associate Agent. The title was created just for her; she wouldn't be an actual, full-fledged agent, but she didn't care about the title. She had a real job, and she felt good about it. That was enough for her.  

The job she'd done for Marx the previous year, helping take down a notorious human trafficking and gun smuggling operation, convinced the Agent In Charge to yield to Karla's request for a permanent position carrying out undercover assignments while continuing to live in a homeless camp in North Portland.  

Not only did Marx agree to extend Karla's undercover work, but she agreed to Karla's request for training. So here she sat now, having returned the day before from twelve weeks of grueling class and field work at the FBI Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia. She'd learned about weapons use, self-defense, surveillance, communications technology, a little about criminal law, and even a few computer skills. The program, designed just for her and her unique role as a homeless, physically challenged woman was only a little over half as long as the regular twenty-week agent training course. But she felt that it prepared her for whatever she might encounter, and she was more confident of her abilities than she had been during her previous experience.  

Karla's reverie was interrupted when the door flew open and Marx came into the room and sat across from her. "Sorry to keep you waiting, but your old friend, Captain Tabor, just called with a request for our help. Seems there's another problem with Portland's homeless. I wonder why his call just happened to come on the day you reported for work. Funny how coincidence occurs in your life so often, isn't it?"  

"I haven't talked to Tabor since I left Portland three months ago," Karla said. "Don't start with bullshit about coincidence, or whatever else you might call it, okay?"  

Marx was momentarily taken aback by Karla's strong retort, then recalled how Karla had always been unintimidated by her position as Agent In Charge and how she always spoke her mind. Although, Marx did have to admit that it was one of the reasons she liked Karla and supported her request for a full-time position.  

"Okay, okay. Relax. Let's not start off on the wrong foot like we did the last time we met in this room. Congratulations on getting through the training course. Agent Ramirez told me you did well. I'm glad. Welcome back to Portland."  

"Thanks. It was hard, but I learned things that might be helpful. Like how to shoot a gun. Like how to make sure I'm not being followed, how to pick locks. Stuff like that. And I am grateful for you making it possible. I'll try my best to justify your trust in me."  

The two women were silent for a moment, possibly embarrassed by the implied intimacy of their words, an intimacy neither one of them was accustomed to.  

Marx broke the silence. "Captain Tabor told me homeless people are dying like flies all around Portland. At first, it was three or four unexplainable deaths a week. Now it's up to a dozen every four or five days. Autopsies haven't pinpointed a cause of death, although the findings are consistent with a heart attack. The pathologist in charge doesn't think that's likely because of the diversity of the victims and the absence of the usual cardiovascular risk factors in most of them. He says there are no signs of violence, and they're all ages. He thinks it might be some kind of mass murder situation. That sounds unlikely to me, but he's requesting our help through the Safe Streets Violent Crimes Initiative.  

"The SSVCI is a federal program mandating cooperation between FBI and local law enforcement when crimes of violence are involved. As I said, his claim sounds over the top, but we don't have much choice. Your first assignment. is to meet Tabor tomorrow morning. Find out what's going on, then let me know. If it meets federal criteria, we'll decide what to do. In the meanwhile, Agent James will get you checked in here. Make sure your paperwork's in order, issue you a sidearm and ammunition, and show you around the facility. Welcome to the family, Agent Hammer. I'm glad you're on board."  

It was midafternoon when Karla got to the homeless camp in North Portland where she'd lived before leaving for the FBI Academy three months earlier. She'd taken an Uber ride from the storage facility in Southeast Portland, where she kept her belongings far from prying eyes, where before she'd left for Quantico she'd stashed the bag of money she'd managed to grab from Zakim's warehouse before the FBI got to it. The first person she encountered at the camp was Rosa, the camp cook, who'd become Karla's trusted friend.  

"Karla! Is that really you? Where've you been all this time? I've missed you," the woman said, rushing to give Karla a hug. "From the looks of what you're carrying, you're here to stay for a while."  

"Rosa. I've missed you too. Yeah, I'm back. Is there room for me?"  

"Your old spot's still empty. I'll help you set up."  

"Thanks. I don't have much. My same beat up tent, my sleeping bag, a few extra clothes."  

As they walked along the path leading to Karla's old site, they passed the spot where Baku's tent used to be. "Isn't this where that kid Baku had a tent? Have you heard anything about him?" Karla asked casually as they continued on.  

"I think he got fifteen years in the Federal pen as an accomplice in that sex trade ring that was busted about the time you disappeared. There was a bunch of guys that went down on that deal. The leader was a guy named Zakim something-or-other. Him and a couple others were killed in a raid at their place in Southeast. You missed all the excitement. It was a big deal in the papers for a month."  

"That's too bad about Baku. He seemed like a nice kid."  

"Yeah. I thought so, too. Although I did wonder about his sudden abundance of cash every so often. But I guess you never know the real story about anyone, do ya."  

"That's for sure," Karla said, as they approached her old campsite.  

At eight-thirty the following morning, Karla and Captain Tabor were having breakfast together at a local café on Lombard Street. After small talk about Karla's FBI training and Tabor's recent cases, Tabor filled Karla in on the surge of random deaths among greater Portland's homeless population—close to two hundred during the previous four months. "That's about ten percent of the overall population, as many as twenty-five-hundred. That number of deaths in a short time, and the fact that they're increasing each month, is alarming, to say the least. There were fifteen in the first month, but seventy-three last week alone."  

"My God. That is alarming. What's known about the causes? Is it some kind of plague or something?" Karla asked, realizing that if that were the case, Tabor wouldn't be there talking to her about FBI involvement. It would be a Department of Health problem.  

"There's no evidence of anything like that. There's no sign of poisoning, either—tox tests are negative. The medics are stumped. So is the Portland Police Department. That's why I'm talking to you. We need more resources—the FBI kind."  

"Like what, exactly?"  

"I don't know. What I do know is that it's beyond our expertise. That's why Chief Kelly asked Marx to lend a hand. As far as I'm concerned, it's a lucky break you happened to be the one she sent as liaison. I know your capabilities, and maybe what you learned in your training will make you even better at this job. I hope she assigns you to a joint investigation of these deaths. By the way, did they give you a gun?"  

"Yeah, and I learned how to use it. But I left it in the storage unit. Wouldn't be good if some nosy dude sees me with it or finds it in my stuff when someone rifles through it when I'm gone from camp."  

"That makes sense," Tabor said, as he waved his cup at the waitress for a refill. "It is nice to know where it is in case you needed it, though."  

"They gave me a mobile phone, as well. I left that in storage, as well. Wouldn't be wise for a down-and-out street person like me to be discovered with a secure FBI pone."  

Tabor nodded in agreement.  

"As far as Marx putting me on this case—she might. After all, she did choose me to talk to you about it. And it is about the homeless, right up my alley. But if she does, it'd probably be with a more senior agent. Maybe Janes. I'm just the new kid on the block."  

"That makes sense. So, what's next?" Tabor asked.  

"I'll report our conversation to Marx this morning. I'll let you know what she says. Check the same barrel near the camp we used as a drop before. Without a phone, I'll have no other connection to your world—I'm back on the streets now."  

Tabor savored his fresh coffee as he watched Karla leave through the jumble of tables, thinking how the thump thump thump of her thick oak cane across the hardwood floor could serve as a warning to whomever she might have in her sights soon.  

An Uber driver dropped Karla at the FBI headquarters security gate a little after eleven o'clock. Ten minutes later, she sat across the table from Hanna Marx and Darrel James, who was leafing through a folder of FBI memos concerning the deaths of Portland homeless people. He folded the file shut and looked at Karla. "We've been keeping an eye on this for the past few months but couldn't do much about it until PPD requested our involvement. What did Tabor have to say?"  

"He's worried about the sudden escalation in the number of deaths, but PPD doesn't have a clue about the causes. They're getting nowhere fast and need our help."  

"Do you have any idea about what might be going on?" James asked.  

Karla took a moment to gather her thoughts—she wasn't used to being asked her opinion on weighty matters like this. "According to what he told me, there doesn't seem to be a pattern. Nothing's been identified as a common factor—the deaths are randomly spread through the three counties around Portland: Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas. Last week, mysterious deaths in Clark County, across the river in Washington, were reported as well. These deaths, with no obvious cause, are limited to homeless street-dwellers. The hospitals and morgues are overwhelmed, and Portland's leaders are panicked. PPD's assigned twenty officers to this investigation, which Tabor's in charge of, but so far, they've got nothing.  

Marx thought for a moment, then asked, "What do you think we could do that they can't?"  

"For one thing, give them access to our national lab. Maybe the guys at Quantico could identify what's killing these people. We could also provide manpower, more investigators, spread the net wider."  

James shook his head. "No amount of agents chasing this is gonna do any good if we don't know something about how they're dying, what the cause is. That's the key question. I agree our lab would be a place to start. I'll—"  

Marx interrupted James, "Okay. Make the arrangements. Expedite the process." Then she turned to Karla. "Another option is to go undercover and figure what these deaths have in common—there has to be a link. Just because no one's found it yet doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Karla, that's why you're here. I'm assigning you to work with Captain Tabor. James," she said, turning back to him, "you'll be Karla's contact here. You two did well on Zakim's trafficking investigation. I'm confident you will on this as well."  

Karla started to say something, but Marx stood, told them both that she wanted an update every week, then abruptly stood and left the room.  

James closed his folder and said, "I'll set up a meeting with Tabor for this afternoon."  

Karla nodded, then said, "I need a copy of that file. I wanna go through it before we see him."  

Meanwhile fifteen miles southeast of Portland, in the basement of nondescript farmhouse set in the middle of a forested ten-acre plot of land in rural Clackamas county, a middle aged man was putting on a biohazard suit. As he adjusted the airflow for his face mask, the wireless intercom buzzed. "Yes?" he answered.  

"Honey? Lunch is ready. I made turkey chili. The kind you like."  

"Oh, good. I'll be up in fifteen minutes. I just have to collect the stuff from the overnight incubation and put it in the freezer. Keep the chili warm for me, okay?"  

"Don't worry. I'll have the saltine crackers out for you as well."  

With his airflow at the right level, the man went through an airlock and into his biosafety level-4 lab, thinking about how many saltines he would crumble into his chili.