Bigrat: Episode Five - By Howard Schneider 

We left Episode Four as Jack called his father and told him about what he and Travis were doing. Hoping his parents would appreciate what they’d accomplished, he invited them to the rat circus show. His father said they'd be there the following morning. 

The morning dawned colder than the day before and rain clouds were building over the West Hills. 

“We still gonna do this? Will people stop to watch Bigrat if it rains?” Lucile asked. She, Travis, and Jack were sitting around the fire barrel drinking coffee and toasting bread on sticks held near the flames. 

“I’ll put up a tarp. There’s one over there nobody’s using,” Jack said, then got up and headed towards a debris pile at the edge of the camp. 

Although by nine-thirty a typical Portland drizzle had set in, the performance area was perfectly dry under the big blue tarp. A crowd had already gathered in anticipation of the approaching show-time—even larger than the one at the six o’clock show the day before. News of this bizarre event must have spread, and the air buzzed with excitement. Potent Stumptown, Pete’s, and Starbucks' coffees further fueled the crowd’s heightened mood. 

Precisely at ten o'clock, Jack made his introduction, then Travis materialized with cage in hand and released Bigrat into the arena Again, the show was spectacular, and the onlookers loved it. Bigrat even bowed at the same time Travis did after the finale. 

But as Lucile was passing her bucket through the crowd, and Travis had already started back to the camp with Bigrat, a bicycle-patrol policeman strode up to Jack and positioned himself directly in front of him. After he dismounted his bike, he withdrew a citation book from one of the ample pockets in his navy blue shorts. Then, with focused deliberation, he withdrew a ballpoint from a narrow little shirt pocket designed for pens. 

The much shorter cop looked up into Jack’s face and said, “You people are breaking a lot of laws with this thing,” gesturing dismissively towards the arena with his pen. “I’m only gonna give you a warning this time, but you’re gonna have to close it down. You’re blocking a public thoroughfare and creating a nuisance. I don’t want to see you back here, either.” He opened the citation book and began flipping through it page by page, as if he wanted to make sure the people gathering around saw how many citations he'd already issued. 

“Just a moment, officer!” a pinstripe-suited, gray-haired man said as he walked up to the two of them and stood next to Jack. “I’m an attorney and represent this group. According to Portland City Code, they’re fully within their legal rights. Are you sure this is a citation you want to issue?” 

The officer took a step back, looked up at the tall, imposing man, glanced at Jack’s arena, then sputtered, “Well . . . this thing is a nuisance. Anyway, I wasn’t gonna arrest them.” He took another step back, then looked at the arena again. “I’ll see what my sergeant says. If you ask me, these street people are out of control. It doesn’t help that they have lawyers, either.” He stared at the arena for another moment, then put the citation book and pen back in their respective pockets, adjusted his utility belt in an exaggerated manner, and walked away, shaking his helmeted head as if in pronounced disgust. He remounted his bicycle and peddled off without further comment. 

“Dad! You were awesome!” Jack exclaimed. “I didn’t even know you were here. Is mom here, too?” 

“Yes, she's here,” Jack’s father said, glancing at a well-dressed woman speaking to Lucile as she placed a thick roll of bills into the bucket. “We wanted to see what you’re up to.” Jack’s father stepped over to the arena and examined it closely. “This is a work of art. I remember when you worked on scenery for your high school plays. I had no idea you were this good. Now I understand why you wanted to go to art school rather than law school. I’m sorry it took me so long to understand that—to accept it.” 

Jack was overcome with emotion and tears welled up in his eyes. He stepped closer to his father and said, “Thanks, Dad.” 

“I’m proud of you, son,” the man said, then threw his arms around the boy and pulled him close. 

“Mom!” Jack cried when his mother joined them as his father stepped aside. “Thanks for coming.” 

“I’m glad we did,” she replied. “Although I never thought my son would be hanging out with an elderly woman collecting money in a little tin bucket and fronting for a man sporting a purple cape and conducting the performance of a giant rat. But if that makes you happy, then so am I.” 

That evening, after the last show for the day and they were back at the camp, Jack told Travis and Lucile that he might be leaving for college in the fall but would stick around for the summer. “My dad said he would foot the bill for the Scenic Design Program at the California Institute of the Arts. I applied last fall but didn’t tell my parents about it then. I should find out if I'm accepted pretty soon.” 

“Jack! I can’t do this without you,” Travis blurted out. 

“Oh, come on, Travis. Sure you can. Darko could do my part.” 

“No way, Jack. You can’t leave me. We’re a team. And I’m sure not gonna bring Darko into this. I don’t trust that guy.” 

“Travis! Hush up that kinda talk. Jack helped get the circus going. He done his part. Now he’s gotta get on with his life. We’ll manage just fine. And don’t fret none about Darko. There’s plenty others could take over from Jack. Now calm down and pour me more of that wine,” Lucile said, holding out her cup. 

Life for Travis, Lucile, and Jack continued on a positive track as rainy spring days turned into warm, dry summer weeks, then months. The circus thrived without hassle from the police, crowds grew, and contributions surged. The big rat was a big hit; Bigrat and Travis were featured in a front-page story in the Oregonian and were given extensive coverage by Willamette Week. Even Jack’s acceptance by the college didn’t dim Travis’s optimism, a feeling no doubt helped by his medications being at their right levels. But then, one afternoon in August, a man approached Travis after the two o’clock show and offered to buy him a cup of coffee at a nearby shop. That’s when everything changed. 

“Who are you?” Travis asked before accepting the invitation. 

“Samuel Bern. I’m an epidemiologist. I’d like to talk to you about rats. I’ve seen your show and think you might be able to help us.” 

After numerous meetings with Bern, interviews with his colleagues, filling out forms and questionnaires, and having Jack’s father examine the offer-letter, Travis accepted Bern’s proposal of a full-time job as Special Technician for Rodent Acquisition and Management. So, with a single signature, Travis became a well-paid member of a joint Federal-State Public Health Department team studying health effects of urban rodent populations. A real job, a path forward. 

Travis’s acceptance of the position with the rodent study project meant that the Bigrat Circus would have to be disbanded before he was scheduled to take up his duties two weeks later. But with Jack leaving, and maybe more importantly, recent signs that Bigrat was becoming less enthusiastic about performing, the need to close down the circus actually wasn’t that difficult to accept After all, it had accomplished what it needed to. 

After their final performance, on the last day of August, Lucile caught up with Travis on his way back to the camp. 

“What you gonna to do with Bigrat?” she asked. 

“I been thinking about letting him go. Letting him return to being a plain old rat again, free to go wherever he wants. And do whatever he wants. After what he’s done for us, it wouldn’t be right to sell him to the rat man. I’d never do that! . . . Come on, Aunt Lucile, let’s set him free right now, before I change my mind.” 

A few minutes later they came to where Travis had caught Bigrat nearly five months earlier. When Travis opened the cage door Bigrat scuttled a few feet into the weeds, but then suddenly stopped. He turned back to Travis and stared at him for a short while, gave Lucile a lingering look, then turned away and scampered over to a jumbled pile of broken-up concrete chunks and disappeared into a narrow crevice. 

“So long, Pa. Thanks for everything,” Travis whispered under his breath, too quietly for Lucile to have heard.

Bigrat: Episode Four - By Howard Schneider 

“It was Bigrat! Didn’t you hear him?” Travis said, as he approached the box where he kept the rat. When he reached it, he looked over the edge, then gasped, a look of shock distorting his face. 

“Pa!” Travis screamed, then beckoned Jack with a yell and a frantic wave of his big hand. “Jack! You gotta see this! Get Aunt Lucile, too! Hurry!” 

Jack found Lucile, then ran to where Travis was staring at the rat, which was standing up on its hind legs in the middle of the box floor, its mouth opening and closing like it did when it wanted food. Lucile joined them and scanned the interior of the box. 

“What’s wrong?” she asked. 

“He was Pa a second ago. Now he’s a rat again,” Travis said, looking back and forth between Bigrat and Lucile. 

“What?” Jack asked, having no idea what Travis was talking about. 

“He was my pa. He called me. Didn’t you hear him?" Travis's frustration was evident in his near-panic demeanor. "But by the time you got here he'd already turned back into a rat again.” 

“Holy shit,” Jack said, then stepped away a few paces and motioned Lucile to join him. “What’s going on?” 

“It’s alright, Jack. Sometimes Travis hears and sees things the rest of us don’t. But there’s no harm in it. He just needs to get back on his medicines. We’ll see to it tomorrow.” 

Lucile turned toward Travis. “You’ll go to the clinic with me, won’t you? You’ll wanna be good in your head when get your circus going, won't you?” 

Travis ignored her question. “It was him, Aunt Lucile! I know it was. I recognized him. I saw his face. I’d know him anywhere. He’s come to help me and Jack. And you, too. You was his favorite sister, even if you did leave when you married Virgil. You know Pa never did like Virgil. Said he stole you away from us.” 

“Never mind all that. All’s I know is your Pa would want you to be as strong as you can be. Remember how he always told you to take your pills?” 

“Yeah . . . I remember. I remember he looked after me real good after Ma died.” 

Travis was quiet for a moment, then added, “That’s why he come back as Bigrat. To look after me. And you, too.” 

“Travis, honey, I ain’t gonna tell you what to think. But I do want you to come with me tomorrow to the clinic. Will you do that?” 

 “Okay. But you gotta talk to the doctor. They make me nervous. They never believe what I tell 'em, either.” 

“Don’t worry. I’ll be with you all the time, and I'll do the talking. We’ll go first thing in the morning.” 

Later, when Jack was alone with Lucile, he said, “Are you sure he’s gonna be okay? That stuff about the rat talking and looking like hie father freaked me out.” 

“He’ll be fine when he’s back on his medicine. There ain’t nothing for you to worry about. I promise.” 

“I sure as hell hope not. I got a lot riding on this rat circus. This is my chance to do something. To show my old man that I’m not a total screw-up like he thinks I am.” His eyes moistened and he looked away. 

Lucile stepped closer and placed her hand on his arm. “Jack, you ain’t a screw-up. You’re a good person, no matter what your pa says. Just do your job as good as you can, and I’ll do mine. I guarantee, everything’s gonna turn out just fine. You hear?” 

“Yes ma’am.” 

“All right then. Let’s dish up some of that stew. It's chicken—no rat meat this time, in honor of Bigrat. Smells good, don’t it?” 

By nine o’clock on a clear morning three days later, Jack had the six-foot-wide, colorfully-painted and decorated plywood performance space assembled and ready. It was eliciting curious glances from walkers, runners and riders passing by on the path, many of whom stopped for a closer look. A sign advertised the show times: 


The Miraculous Acrobatic Rodent 

See it to believe it! 

Every day at 10 a.m.  2 p.m.  6 p.m. 

By a quarter-to-ten, two dozen people were gathered around the untended arena—strangers chatted amongst themselves as Portlanders are inclined to do whenever an appropriate occasion presents itself. A few black Labs, Australian Shepherds, and Blue Heelers eyed their masters, impatient to get on with their morning runs. But curiosity kept the onlookers hanging around, as if reluctant to miss out on something that might contribute to keeping Portland weird.  

At precisely ten o’clock, Travis, adorned in a purple cape fashioned from a well-worn beach towel Jack found at Goodwill, suddenly materialized from behind a nearby bush and approached the arena. A cage dangled from his left hand and he held a two-foot-long, gold-painted stick in the other. Jack followed behind him, a red rag wrapped around his head like a turban and a look of confidence on his clean-shaven, youthful face. Then came Lucile, furtively surveying the crowd, an impish smile softening her weathered face. She carried a child’s sand bucket in one hand and a fistful of printed flyers in the other. 

Jack stepped around Travis to a grassy spot in front of the crowd, which had grown to about thirty people by then. More passers-by continued to join as they came along the riverside macadam path. 

“Welcome to the first public performance by the phenomenal Bigrat,” Jack announced, “the most talented rat in the history of the universe. Master Travis, Bigrat’s owner and trainer, will direct the amazing rodent in a demonstration of remarkable athletic prowess. Miss Lucile,” Jack said before bowing towards Lucile, “in due time will circulate among you with a collection vessel into which you may deposit your expressions of appreciation. Although we willingly accept coin, the silence of folding money is far less distracting and will be looked upon with great favor.” 

Travis then stepped forward, silent, standing tall, barely acknowledging the spectators. He held Bigrat’s cage over the roofless, low-walled arena for a brief moment, just long enough for the audience to gauge the size of the giant coal-black rat. Then, with a flick of his thumb, he pressed a button and released its latched door. Bigrat paused at the opening and glanced around at the people staring at him, then without fanfare he leapt in a graceful arc into the waiting performance area. 

Gasps, tittering laughter, and cries reflecting surprise or amazement erupted spontaneously from the crowd when Bigrat made his dramatic entrance with the precision of an Olympic athlete. He landed solidly on the trampoline, bounced high into the air, executed two flawless backflips, then came down onto a croquet-size, garishly-painted wooden ball. After a fraction of a second to gain his balance and adjust his feet to maintain his position on top of it, he rolled the ball completely around the circumference of the green-felt-covered plywood floor of Jack’s magnificent arena. The crowd clapped and hooted, clearly astounded by the rat’s surprising abilities. The whistles and yells were deafening, but Travis and Bigrat ignored the wild response and carried on with the performance without missing a beat. After thirty minutes of tumbling, rolling, twirling, prancing, and flipping, the crowd’s expressions of wonder and awe were even more raucous. 

After the final stunt, Travis set the open cage on the arena floor and Bigrat entered it at once to claim the well-earned reward of Tillamook aged cheddar cheese adorning gluten-free quinoa-meal crackers. Travis took a single bow to acknowledge the prolonged applause, retrieved the cage, securely latched its door, and walked off, leaving Jack to fold up his handiwork and Lucile to circulate among the crowd and hand out the flyers advertising the “Bigrat Circus.” It wasn't long before Lucile’s bucket was nearly full. 

As Jack and Lucile were walking back to the camp, pulling the cart he had made to transport the arena, Jack asked, “Is something wrong with Travis? He’s so . . . I don’t know . . . quiet. It’s like he wasn’t that involved with the performance.” 

“He’s okay. The medicine he’s on just needs to be adjusted. It always takes a few weeks to get it right. We go back to the clinic next week for a tune-up. Don’t worry none. Everything’s gonna be okay. We've been through this before.” 

Back at the camp, after they had eaten most of the pizzas Jack bought to celebrate their big day, Lucile reported that their take from the three shows was $369. They were thrilled with their success. As the celebration continued, each of them pondered the hope that the circus really might provide a path to the better future they so desperately longed for. 

When the beer and wine were gone, and they'd all eaten their fill, Travis opened the remaining pizza box and said, “I’ll give the rest of it to Bigrat. He loves pepperoni. It always was his favorite. Ain’t that right, Aunt Lucile?” 

Lucile looked at him with alarm but said nothing. 

Later that evening, Jack called his father and told him about what he and Travis were doing. Hoping his parents would appreciate what they’d accomplished, he invited them to the show. His father said they would stop by the following morning but told Jack that he was skeptical about a “rat circus.”

Bigrat: Episode Three - By Howard Schneider 

When the big rat stopped nosing around for crumbs and rose up on his haunches, Travis said, “I heard you.” 

"I didn't say anything," Lucile said from where she sat near the burn barrel. She got up and went to where Travis stood next to the box. 

"It was Bigrat," Travis said in a  hushed voice. 

Lucile looked at the rat, then at Travis. “What are you talking about? That rat can't talk . . . are you hearing them voices again?” 

“Sometimes. But this is different. I can tell.” 

I’ve got to get this boy back on his meds, Lucile thought to herself. 

As they were talking, some of the other squatters, Darko and Belinda, Jack, and Yun Leng, came into the camp and drifted over to Travis and Lucile to see what the attraction was. Noticing the little gathering, Roberta and Tony joined them. 

“What’s going on?” Darko asked. 

 “I’ve got an acrobatic rat. Wanna see?” 

“What the hell are you talking about?” 

“I’ll show ya. Aunt Lucile, would you get me a piece of bread or something?”   

A moment later Lucille handed Travis a few stale crackers. 

“You all watch this.” Travis held out one of the crackers. “Do a flip, Bigrat.” 

Much to the amazement of the onlookers, the rat jumped straight upwards, turned head-over-tail in mid-air and landed on all four feet. Then he sat up on his haunches and opened and closed his mouth. 

“I’ll be damned,” Darko said. 

Travis dropped a cracker into the box and Bigrat devoured it immediately. 

“Now watch this,” Travis said, holding out another cracker. 

 This time the rat did somersaults across the bottom of the box, from one side to the other, then back again. The onlookers gasped  in amazement. 

After the little group settled down, Darko said, “You got yourself an unusual rat there, Travis. Whaddya' gonna do with it?” 

“I don’t rightly know. Got any ideas?”                                              

“Maybe. I’ll think about it,” Darko said, then walked over to his tent, sat down in his lawn chair and withdrew a pint bottle from his coat pocket. 

Travis and Jack remained by the fire, talking quietly late into the night. 

The next morning, Travis, Lucile, and Jack were sitting near a crackling fire when Darko joined them. 

“Hey, Darko. There’s some coffee left.” 

“Thanks.” Nodding at Travis, Darko poured what was left of the coffee into the cup Lucile gave him, then sat down next to her. 

“I got an idea about that rat,” Darko said. “Train him to do that acrobat stuff and take the act to the street. People will pay to see those tricks. I’ll manage it. We’ll split the money.” 

“I already had the same idea,” Jack said. “Me and Travis talked about it last night after you left. Got it all planned out. I’m even gonna make a performance space—like a circus ring. A place for the rat, Bigrat, to do its tricks, with props and stuff.” 

“Yeah, we already figured it out, Darko. We can handle it on our own,” Travis added. 

“Hold on, buddy. You can’t cheat me outta my idea. Nobody’s gonna steal my idea, especially a hick like you,” Darko said, rage spreading across his stubbled face. He got up and went to where Travis sat drinking his coffee. "You asked me for ideas, didn't you?" 

Travis set his cup on the ground, got to his feet, and faced Darko, his fists slowly clenching and unclenching. “We don't need your ideas, Darko. We come up with our own. And you're calling me a thief. I don't take kindly to that.” His voice had a menacing quality Darko hadn't witnessed previously. 

Before Darko could respond, Lucile jumped up from where she was sitting and quickly moved to where Travis and Darko stood facing each other. “What are you scrapping about?” She edged her small body between the two big men, forcing each one to take a step back. "What’s wrong with you two boys?” 

“I ain't gonna let Darko claim our idea for Bigrat,” Travis said. 

“It was my idea,” Darko replied, appealing to Lucile as if she were a judge, or a referee. 

Looking from one to the other, Lucile calmly said, “Well, as I see it, Travis has the say since it’s his rat. Where we come from, possession is more than half the weight in any dispute. So that’s the way it’ll have to be. Now both of you quit this hollering and get on with your own business. Arguing ain’t gonna do nobody no good.” She looked at Darko, then Travis, then returned to her spot by the fire and sat down on her double-folded piece of cardboard. She picked up her cup from where she'd set it on the cold ground and drank the last of it. 

“Come on, Jack. We got work to do,” Travis said as he walked over to the box where Bigrat slept entangled in a wad of shredded rags that passed for a nest. 

Humiliated by Lucile's firm rebuke, Darko, grumbling under his breath, went back to his tent for his cardboard sign, yelled something at Belinda, then headed up to MLK Boulevard and on to his intersection for another day of panhandling. 

As the days passed, Darko still persisted in his demand that Travis and Jack let him in on their rat circus project. But they resisted his appeals, steadfastly refusing to allow him to horn in. After a week of squabbling, sometimes coming close to violence, Darko finally gave up. Then one morning, without a word to anyone in the camp, he and Belinda took down their shelter and packed their stuff. They were gone by noon. The next morning, two women, appearing to be in their early twenties, pushing grocery carts overflowing with bulging black garbage bags and leading two scruffy dogs on rope leashes, approached Lucile for permission to set up a tent in Darko’s old spot. After they talked a while, Lucile said it would be okay. Abandoned spots for shelters didn’t remain unoccupied for long on the streets of Portland. 

Unencumbered by Darko's harassment, Travis and Jack forged ahead with the rat- circus project. Although Travis continued to trap rats to bring in needed income and for occasional contributions to Lucile's stewpot, and Jack still spent mornings busking for whatever coins were tossed his way, they spent afternoons and evenings over the following month working on a performance space and planning how to use it. Jack used his artistic skills to build and decorate a plywood enclosure that folded up for easy transport. He searched junk shops, recycling centers, and trash piles for materials to make props for Bigrat: a tower to do flips from, a ramp for tumbling, a swing, balance bars, and even a small trampoline. 

While Jack was doing his part, Travis was teaching Bigrat a trick for each prop. A food-reward training method he'd figured out worked well, and Bigrat learned fast—soon they'd developed half-a-dozen stunts. Furthermore, Travis was convinced that Bigrat enjoyed the routines, and even thought he heard Bigrat laugh sometimes when he was doing his tricks. Travis felt that a close connection had developed between the two of them, like a bond between father and son, even though the father happened to be a rat. 

At last the day arrived when Travis and Jack felt they were ready. The performance space was finished, the tricks perfected, and the weather had improved. Jack had assumed the role of manager and was doing most of the organizing; how to structure a show, where to put it on, logistics of setting it up, stuff like that. Travis was responsible for care and training of Bigrat and working out the rat’s performance routine. 

“Where should we start?” Travis asked. 

“I’ve got a spot picked out, a little north of here, on the EastBank Esplanade. There’s enough space and plenty of foot traffic. Lots of bicycle riders, as well.” 

“Sounds good. Let’s do it,” Travis said, grinning with anticipation. 

Suddenly, Travis froze. He looked at the big cardboard box in which Bigrat was supposedly sleeping, then said, “Did you hear that? Did you hear what he said?” 

“Who?” Jack asked, puzzled by Travis’ questions. 

“Bigrat! Didn’t you hear him?” Travis said, as he approached the box. When he reached it and looked over the edge, he gasped and jumped back, a look of shock distorting his face.

Bigrat: Episode Two - By Howard Schneider 

Later that evening, after the stew his Lucille had made and shared with the other homeless campers, Travis set out eleven traps. The next morning, every trap held a rat, and the rat man bought them all. With part of the money, Travis bought a roasting chicken and marked-down, bruised vegetables for Lucile's soup. Between her culinary talents, his trapping expertise, and an unlimited supply of rats, along with someone willing to buy them, Travis and Lucile felt things were heading in the right direction for the first time in years. 

The routine Travis followed most days was pretty well established. He laid out traps in late afternoon or early evening and collected the rats the following morning. Once in a while he’d give some to Lucile for a stew, but most times he’d sell them all and use the proceeds to buy bargain ingredients for her to work magic with. The rest of the day he wandered the city aimlessly or hung out at the camp under the bridge with whoever happened to be around. The squatters liked someone to always be there to prevent druggies from stealing their stuff. Travis liked talking to Darko and his girlfriend, a short woman with diabetes named Belinda, although that happened only on days when Darko and Belinda weren’t at the intersection they'd claimed, holding up their cardboard signs and hustling handouts. Or with the elderly Cambodian widower, Yun Leng, whose house had been repossessed a year earlier because of a reverse mortgage scam. Yun spent most of his time volunteering at senior centers and shelters in exchange for breakfasts and lunches. Occasionally, Travis would pass the time with a lady named Roberta, although she mostly stayed in the pallets-and-tarp shelter her husband Tony constructed. Tony said she suffered from depression and liked to be alone. Tony spent most days pushing a shopping cart, collecting enough bottles and cans to make the five dollars a day he said they needed. 

Evenings at the camp were spent sharing Lucile’s cooking and maybe a cheap bottle of wine, sometimes passing around a joint, and telling stories. Occasionally, the stories were about good times, but mostly they were about how hard it was living the way they did. Once in a while, Jack played his guitar and sang a few songs, even though he wasn’t all that good a musician. He didn’t make much performing on the sidewalks downtown, but he kept trying anyway. Jack said life on the streets, as rough as it was, was still better than living at home where his every move and thought was controlled by his hyperachieving lawyer father. It helped that he talked to his mother occasionally with the cell phone she'd given him, but he still felt homesick sometimes. 

One morning a few weeks later, when Travis was checking his catch, he could hardly believe his eyes when he retrieved the last one. It contained the largest rat he’d ever seen. Most of the brown rats (Norway rat; Rattus norvegicus) he’d come across weighed about half a pound. This one must have been at least three or four times that. He'd planned to sell everything that morning, but something about the big one made him decide to keep it. What was special besides its size was its eyes; how it stared at Travis so intently, as if the rat knew who he was. 

Back at the camp, Travis released the giant rodent into the cardboard box. “Damn. You are a big rat, ain’t you?” he said as he watched the rat explore its unfamiliar environment. Except for Roberta asleep in her shelter, Travis was alone since the other campers were out scrounging, panhandling, hanging out somewhere or doing whatever they did during the day. About an hour later, sitting near the smoldering burn-barrel, he heard his name called out. He looked around, but there was nobody in sight. After it happened again,  he realized it must have been the rat. 

Travis jumped up and rushed over to the box. The rat was running here and there, jumping up onto to the sides of its cardboard prison, although not high enough to clear its walls. When the rat saw Travis, it stopped moving, sat back on its haunches, and looked up. 

“Hey. Did you call me?” Travis asked. 

The rat didn’t respond, but it didn’t move either, or take its eyes off Travis. 

Travis was mesmerized by the rat’s penetrating stare. “I know you can talk,” he said. Then, after a moment, “What kinda rat are you, anyway? You’re different than the other ones I catch. Your color’s darker and your ears are bigger. Your face is kind of pointy . . . Wait a minute! . . . you look like . . . pa? Is that you? Come back as a rat?” 

When Travis stopped talking, but didn’t move away, the rat suddenly sprang straight up into the air, did a perfect back flip and landed squarely on its feet. It then did a series of somersaults around the periphery of the box floor. Back where it began, it sat on its haunches again and looked up at Travis. Its ruby-red eyes glowed like hot coals. 

“Good Lord in heaven! I never seen anything like that before,” Travis said. 

The rat opened and closed its mouth a few times, but otherwise remained motionless. 

“Are you trying to say something? What do you want?”  

“Food!” Travis heard loud and clear. 

Travis knew the rat must have said it, even if its mouth hadn’t moved. 

“Hold on. I’ll get something,” Travis said, glancing at the wooden box where Lucile kept her cooking supplies. “Try this,” he said, dropping a piece of apple and a crust of bread into the box. 

The rat sniffed the offerings, then began eating them. When finished, it nosed around the floor a while, then went to a corner, curled up and closed its eyes. 

Travis returned to his seat by the barrel. He soon came to believe that he actually possessed a talking rat, and that it was an acrobat as well. The longer he thought about it, the more he came to believe that the rat might be his own pa. He got up and went back to the box and the sleeping rat. 

“Pa? Have you come back from your grave to help me in my time of need? Like when I was a kid and you showed me how to get by in the woods? To shoot and trap? Live off the land? I know it’s you. Don’t worry none. I won’t let nobody hurt you. I promise.” Then he returned to his spot by to the barrel. 

 “I gotta give him a name . . . I sure can’t call him Pa. The others wouldn’t understand,” he mumbled as he sat staring into space. 

Travis was jolted out of his trance a little later when Lucile sat down next to him. 

“How ‘bout getting that fire going? It’s cold under this bridge,” she said. “I gotta get dinner started. The rest of ‘em gonna be back soon.” 

Travis got up and broke some sticks and twigs into smaller pieces and laid them on the coals, then grabbed some short 2 x 4 pieces and placed them on top. Soon a good fire was going. 

“I need to name that big rat I got in the box,” he said after he retook his place next to Lucile. 

“What in tarnation are you talking about?” Lucile asked, giving Travis a worried look. “Why on earth would you want to name a big rat?” 

“That’s it! Bigrat! . . ..  Pa would like that,” Travis said, nodding his head and smiling. 

“Your pa? What’s he got to do with anything?” 

“Never you mind,” he said before suddenly snapping his head towards the box. 

“Did you hear that?” 

Lucile glanced at the box, then at Travis. “Hear what?” 

Travis jumped up and went over to the rat. Lucile got up and followed him. 

When Travis appeared over the box rim, the rat stopped nosing around for crumbs, raised up on his haunches and returned the stare.

Bigrat: Episode One - By Howard Schneider 

“Hey! Travis! That sack looks alive. Must’ve been a good catch,” a run-away-teenager named Jack yelled when a tall, hatless man in his mid-thirties appeared in the misty morning light from around a bridge abutment. Travis had longish red hair, a scraggly red beard, and wore a dirty, over-sized mint-green ski parka. 

Jack was sitting next to a rusty, fifty-gallon metal barrel with a scrap-wood fire shooting tongues of orange flame into the cold November air. A small woman, who looked to be in her late fifties, sat next to him on a piece of dirty cardboard. She had an ancient army blanket wrapped around her. In contrast to wispy strands of lusterless, gray hair snaking to her shoulders, her blue eyes were clear and bright. She was smiling at the man walking towards her who was dragging a writhing gunny sack behind him. 

Travis acknowledged the boy with a friendly nod, then stopped in front of the woman and let go of the sack. 

“Morning, Aunt Lucile. Here’s dinner.” He then moved close to the barrel and stretched his long arms out to warm his gloveless, chapped hands. “I’ll gut 'em after I warm up.” 

Before Lucile could respond, a scruffy-looking man, known only as Darko, walked over and prodded the sack with his foot. “That ought ‘a do,” he said. 

He looked at Lucile. “You cooking tonight?” 

She looked up and nodded. 

“Here’s some half-way decent vegetables.” He set a five-gallon spackle bucket on the ground then stepped closer to the fire. 

That night, Travis Hightower slept soundly for the first time in weeks, even though the damp sidewalk next to the bridge ramp was hard and a brisk wind off the Willamette River rattled the shelter he'd jerry-rigged from odd pieces of plywood and blue tarps. His stomach was full, and he was warm under his pile of blankets. He felt safe, as well, in spite of having been off his meds for the past month and hearing the voices again. Lucile huddled next to him, snug under her own blankets. 

“You still awake?" he asked. 

“Yes. But I need to sleep now. I’m plum tuckered out.” 

“Well, I just wanna' say how good your stew was, that's all. They liked it. Maybe we should stay here a while. It ain’t a bad place.” 

“That's okay with me. They seem like nice enough people.” 

“I’ll make some new traps and catch more tomorrow night. I can sell some of em' to a guy I met by the river this morning—said he could sell everything I catch. Sells them to people from countries where they eat em. But I’ll keep enough for another stew. Gotta admit, that meat’s pretty good—tasted like gamey chicken, don't it.” 

“Yes, it does. Now hush up, honey. Go to sleep.” Lucile pulled the blankets tighter around her neck and rolled over to her other side. 

By late the next afternoon, Travis had six new traps he'd made from discarded wire-fencing and odds and ends he’d found at construction sites and in rubbish piles. He used food-scraps from trash cans outside a Burger King for bait. The idea to trap rats had come to him when he saw them scurrying around a dumpster in downtown Portland. They reminded him of when he was a kid in East Tennessee and his pa brought home forest-rats, squirrels, possums, and any other kind of four-legged critter he managed to trap. They all went into the Brunswick stew that was always simmering on his mother’s wood stove. Back then meat was meat, no matter what the source. He couldn’t think why he shouldn’t do the same his daddy had done. Especially since de was fed-up with empty sermonizing that often accompanied free meals at shelters and panhandling for spare change and digging through garbage cans for what others threw away. The constant struggle to survive as a homeless street-dweller was getting harder and harder, and he yearned for a way out—for a normal life. But how to manage that? That was the question that perplexed him. 

When Travis collected his traps the following morning, one contained two rats and the others one each. Taking stock of his catch, he couldn’t help but think about his daddy. He took comfort in talking with him. 

“It’s a good haul, ain’t it, Pa? Remember how you taught me about rats and squirrels and such? Well, that’s coming in handy now,” he said out loud as he transferred the rats to the gunny sack. 

He sold six to the rat-man for a dollar apiece and took six back to Lucile. She was standing near the barrel fire sipping the last of the coffee. 

“You gonna kill them things? And skin and gut 'em? I ain’t gonna do it,” she said when Travis started to walk away. 

“I did yesterday, didn’t I?” 

“All right then. I wanna get to a shelter for a free lunch. How do you kill em, anyway?” she asked after a brief moment. She hadn’t watched him do it the day before. 

“It’s easy. Didn’t you never see Pa do it?” 

“No, I never did. I was living with Virgil up in Blairton from when I was 17. You know that. I was glad to get away from my pa. He was a bad one. Bad as they come. Specially with us three girls. Never went back neither. Never wanted to. Well? . . . you gonna show me or not?” 

“I’ll do it now. Come over here so you can see.” 

Travis opened the sack and dumped the rats into a sturdy cardboard box. It had high sides so they couldn’t get out. After they settled down, he reached in and grabbed one. 

“See? Grab ahold of its body, real tight. Close to the neck so it can’t bite ya.” 

He placed the rat belly-down on the ground and pressed hard to prevent its front legs and head from moving. Its long, scaly tail whipped around, and its rear legs dug in the dirt. 

“Now pinch down on the back of its head with the thumb and finger of your other hand, like this,” he said, showing her. 

“Yank back on its body, like this.” He pulled hard. 

She heard the sharp snap of the rat's spinal cord separating from its skull. It died instantly and lay unmoving in Travis’s big hand. 

At the sound of the snap, Lucile had gasped and looked away. 

Noting Lucile's discomfort, Travis began laughing and waving the dead rat in the air. Then he jumped up and down and spun around in circles. 

Lucile tried to grab his arm. After several tries, she succeeded and managed to quiet him down. She laid her hand on his cheek and said, “Calm yourself, Travis. There’s no need to carry on like that. It don’t do nobody no good.” 

He stared down at the ground for a few seconds, then looked at the woman and grinned sheepishly. “I’m sorry, Aunt Lucile. I didn’t mean no harm. I guess I got too excited. Like I do sometimes. I’ll be better. I promise.” 

That night Lucile’s stew was once again praised by their fellow campers and they told her they hoped she'd make it again. She and Travis were happy that they’d been accepted and were becoming part of this little group of homeless squatters—that they were earning their keep. Something they hadn’t done in a long time. They’d been drifters living on the streets for the past six years, ever since Travis’s father died. 

Because of only sporadic attention paid to the psychiatric condition that emerged in his early twenties, eventually diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder but wasn’t treated properly, Travis was never able to hold a job. The hallucinations, the voices, the wild mood swings, they all made life near impossible for him. And there wasn’t work for Lucile in their little mountain town after the coal mine had played out. To make things even worse, she'd been a widow since her husband Virgil died of black lung. With no alternative, she'd  moved in with Travis and his father. But then Travis's pa died, and a week after his funeral the payday loan company repossessed their trailer, tossing them to the wind with no place to go. That's when Travis and Lucile set off together to find a better life for themselves, a goal so far they'd been unable to reach.

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

Karla followed Madeline through the kitchen of the mass murder gang's Southeast Portland safehouse to the attached garage where Madeline had parked her car. After they got into her old Subaru, Madeline said, "Cover your eyes," and handed Karla a folded dish towel. "You can't see where we're going." 

Realizing Madeline's fragile state of mind, Karla didn't argue. She tied on the towel so her eyes were blocked. "I can't see a thing," Karla said as Madeline backed out of the garage. 

"Keep it that way." 

When Madeline got out to the street, she stopped at the curb and looked behind them: there was a van at the end of the block with ladders on the roof and two men carrying gallon cans to where other ladders leaned against the front of a house; ahead of them, a man with a leaf blower strapped to his back funneled leaves toward the street down a long driveway. Satisfied there was nothing amiss, she started the drive to her own house. 

Thirty-five minutes later, Madeline turned into the driveway of a nondescript, single-level ranch-style house on a wooded lot in rural Clackamas county. She used a remote control to open the garage door. She pulled in then re-closed the door. 

"Can I take this blindfold off?" Karla asked when Madeline switched off the ignition. 

"Yes. And come inside with me. Chester will want his dinner soon. That's when I'll introduce you. He'll be upset that I brought you here—we'll have to be careful not to get him riled up. I'll do the talking. It's important to make him understand that you have money for his project, and that you're part of the group that supports his research. That should keep him calm, at least while he eats. When he's done, you'll have to convince him you're our friend and believe in his work. That's all he cares about—not about the homeless people Pastor Slaggart and the group want to get rid of. He has no idea who they are, and doesn't care, either. He only cares about his precious frogs or toads or whatever they are. His all-important work." 

Karla ripped off the towel and followed Madeline into the house and to the kitchen. Madeline ordered her to sit in one of the four chairs at a square oak table next to a curtained window at the edge of the room. Then she went about preparing a stove-top tuna-mac casserole and putting frozen bread rolls in the oven. She didn't know when Chester would come up for dinner, but knew it better be ready when he did. She was accustomed to her role as his beck-and-call servant and had no intention of giving him reason to think otherwise. 

Karla noted the time: six-seventeen. With Madeline occupied with her cooking, she took her phone out and punched in Agent James' number. But before it connected, Madeline rushed over and ripped the phone out of Karla's hand. "What are you doing?" she screamed. 

"I was just going to cancel a business meeting scheduled for this evening. "They'll wonder where I am." 

"No calls. You won't be here that long. I'll take you where you can call for an Uber after you meet Chester. You can call your businesspeople then." 

Karla didn't want Madeline to suspect anything, so she didn't object. "I'll want that back when I leave," she said firmly when Madeline put the phone in her pocket and returned to her tuna-mac. 

An hour later, Karla and Madeline's quiet conversation was interrupted when they heard the muffled sound of a door slam shut and footfalls coming up the stairs from the basement. 

"That's him," Madeline said with trepidation. "Remember, I'll do the talking." Then she jumped up and went to stand next to her stove. 

A steel door at the other side of the kitchen opened and the creature responsible for production of one of the most lethal substances on earth stepped into the bright light of the room. He closed and locked the door, then looked around. When he noticed a person at the table he didn’t recognize, he squinted and croaked, "Who are you?" 

Karla was momentarily taken back not only by his voice, but by his appearance. The rough rasp of his voice didn't match the waxy pallor of his pock-marked skin. He was tall and thin with a hooked nose dominating a thin-lipped down-turned mouth and dramatically recessed chin that accentuated his triangle-shaped face. His scaly skull showed through sparse, stringy hair receding from a freakishly large forehead. A fetid stench of unwashed body swept toward her like a hot wind. Although his hideousness shocked her momentarily, she recovered quickly—surviving homeless on the streets from the age of fourteen had conditioned her to enough shock to last a lifetime. 

"Chester. We have a visitor—Gail Brandon. She brought money for you. She's part of the group Pastor Slaggart works for. She wanted to meet you in person and thank you for all you've done. We can trust her." 

Seeming to ignore Madeline's rushed introduction, Chester marched directly to the table and sat on down on one of the empty chairs. Ignoring Karla, he looked at Madeline and said, "Did you fix macaroni and cheese?" 

'Yes. With tuna. Do you want it now?" 

"Yes, With Coca Cola. Did you make the rolls? I like rolls with macaroni and cheese." 

"Yes, I know." Madeline rose, went to the oven, and obediently served Chester his dinner as if Karla weren't there, silently attentive to his curt commands—another serving of tuna-mac, a second Coke, more rolls, a second piece of apple pie. 

Finally, after Madeline removed Chester's empty plate, he slid his chair back and looked at the woman sitting silently across from him. "Who are you" Why are you really here?" 

"Chester! She's a friend and has money for you," Madeline said, retaking her place at the table. 

"Shut your mouth. She should have sent it by Slaggart instead of giving it to you, like every other time they sent money. Something's not right." 

"She helped distribute the gloves. There's nothing to worry about." 

Karla started to speak, but Chester slammed his fist on the table and said, "I don't trust you! I think you're here to stop me! Like others have tried before." 

"That's not true!" Karla shouted with enough anger to shock him into silence. "I hate what these dirty squatters are doing to my business interests, and I need you. From what I've heard, you're a creative genius—one of a kind—the only person alive who could do what you're doing. Here," she took the roll of bills from her purse, "take this so you can keep doing it. But I wanna' see it with my own eyes. If what I see is real, and you are making the poison stuff yourself, there'll be plenty more to keep you in business. And to protect my business." 

Chester appeared calmed by Karla's forceful response. "I don't like surprises, that's all." He glanced at Madeline, then back to Karla, then said, " She should have told me she was bringing you here." 

"Don't blame her—it was my idea. I sprung it on her when we were at the safehouse. She didn't want to, but I insisted. So why don't you give me a tour of your labs—show me what you're doing. Then I'll leave and get to the meeting I'm already late for. But I really am interested in your work. I was a premed major in college and am still drawn to science." 

Considering the roll of bills on the table, Karla's convincing defense of her sincerity, and her proclaimed interest in science, Chester reluctantly acquiesced to her request. "Okay. But you'll have to put on a biohazard suit. And I won't show you everything." 

"No problem. I just want to see enough to justify my investment." 

Chester led Karla down the stairs to the labs' anteroom and gave her a Tyvek hooded jumpsuit and a plastic, full-face, vented biohazard mask. After they were suited up, he opened a steel door and led her into brightly lit hallway. She felt a stream of warm air from ceiling vents wash over her and detected a faint musty odor she didn't recognize. 

"What do you want to see?" Chester asked, a hint of hesitancy in his muffled voice. 

Karla wasn't sure how to respond, just as she wasn't sure how she'd be able to put an end to this monster's malevolent efforts. But she knew she had to do something and asked, "How do you make the toxin?" 

Letting pride in his remarkable accomplishments get the better of him, even though against his better judgement, he consented to her request. Actually, although he didn't want to admit it to himself, he was pleased that this person, a person who proclaimed their appreciation of his scientific creativity, was giving him a chance to show off his accomplishment—something he'd rarely been able to do before. "Okay. I'll show you." 

Chester walked a short distance along the hall to a closed door which he unlocked and opened. "This is where it starts." He stepped inside—Karla followed close behind. 

Inside the room, the musty odor she'd detected in the hall was overwhelming, even with the face mask on, making her want to gag. But she didn't, calling up every bit of fortitude she could muster. The first thing she saw was a wall of racks holding dozens of what looked like fish tanks. Looking closer, she saw that they didn't contain water, but seething masses of bright-yellow amphibians: These must be the toads Madeline mentioned, she thought. 

Chester drew her close to one of the tanks. "Beautiful, aren't they," he said softly, as if they were staring in awe at a magnificent painting in the Louvre. 

She wasn't sure how to respond, how to play the role of a wealthy businesswoman determined to kill off enough homeless people to drive away the rest, a woman who professed to have been premed in college and still love science, while at the same time an undercover FBI agent determined to destroy this entire operation, the operation of a brilliant but demented madman. "What do these toads have to do with the toxin?" was all she could come up with. 

Chester was surprised by her question. He thought she would've had a better idea of what the frogs were about. In his view, any premed college student, having taken prerequisite courses in biology, chemistry, and physiology, would be aware of poison derived from secretions of poison dart frogs. Like curare from the bark of the Strychnos plant or digoxin from foxglove—it would be included in standard third-year course material, impossible to have been overlooked. Even more alarming, her calling these smooth-skined frogs toads. As far as he was concerned, anyone who'd taken even the most basic biology course would know the difference between frogs and toads—smooth skin versus bumpy. The suspicion he had at the dinner table returned, stronger this time—something about this woman isn't right. 

"They produce a form of the poison that I collect and convert to a more suitable version," he said, unwilling to divulge more information than that. 

Wanting to get out of this room with its nauseating stench, and detecting a note of suspicion in Chester's reply, she asked, "Where do you do that?" 

"I'll show you," he answered, then led her back to the hallway and relocked the door. He went to another door and unlocked it. "In here." 

When Karla entered Chester's chemistry lab, she was surprised to discover what appeared to be highly sophisticated machines and instruments, long benches with an array of glassware, bottles of liquids and powders, and open-faced, hooded clean-air cabinets along one side of the expansive room. Chester pointed at an especially complicated machine and with undisguised pride said, "That's what I use to isolate the derivative I create from the toxin the frogs make. By the way, they're frogs, not toads, something you'd know if you actually were who you say you are." Then, ignoring the accusation he'd just made, he turned back to the instrument. "It's a large-scale liquid chromatography set up. I collect enough modified toxin in one day to kill  hundreds of people." 

Barely able to comprehend what Chester was saying, but now fully aware that he knew her proclaimed identity was false, Karla's first thought was, I get outta here and let the FBI take this place down. And put this maniac where he belongs. She also acknowledged the thought that at that moment flashed through he mind—why did I stupidly pretend to know anything about science, way too easy for him to challenge. But quickly recovering her grit, she said, "Well, Chester, this impressive facility, and your obvious passion, convinces me you're the real thing. I thank you for allowing me into your laboratories. and I pledge to you that I'll continue to support what you're doing until we've accomplished our goal." Then, to reinforce her commitment of continued funding, she added, "In fact, because of your invaluable contribution, I'll continue funding it as long as you need it." Then she looked at her wristwatch and said, "I hate to leave now, but I do have to get to a business meeting I'm late for." 

When Karla started toward the door, Chester moved quickly to block her way. "I don't know who you are, lady, but you're not going anywhere." Then he yanked open a drawer in the bench he stood next to and grabbed a syringe with a hypodermic needle attached to it. He reached to a shelf behind him for a small glass vial and started to pierce the rubber cap with the needle. But before he could, Karla, who'd been desperately thinking about possible action to take, chose a combination that'd served her well during her years on the street—distraction, then escape. 

In the seconds Chester was taking to prepare the lethal injection he intended for Karla, she snatched a glass-stoppered bottle from a shelf running down the middle of the lab bench and hurled it at him. The stopper fell out when the bottle smashed into his face shield, The clear, fluid contents splashed across its surface, quickly covering the air intake vents. He screamed once, dropped the syringe and vial, then desperately tried to rip the face covering off. He began coughing, then choking violently as he inhaled potent corrosive fumes with every breath. When Karla, who was far enough away to avoid the main plume of acid vapors, glanced at the bottle where it lay on the floor, she understood what was happening—it was labeled "ACID, Concentrated HCl." 

By the time Chester got the shield off he was already close to an agonizing death and unable to prevent Karla from sprinting out the door and escape the growing mist of acrid fumes filling the room. When she got to the ante room, she discarded the protective gear and rushed upstairs, ignoring the slight discomfort in her throat and chest. Entering the kitchen, she came face to face with Madeline holding a pistol in one hand and Karla's phone in the other. "You lied to us," she screeched, waving the phone in the air, then shouted, "What did you do to Chester? I heard him scream." 

Karla Kept her eyes on the gun and calmly said, "Madeline. There's been an accident. Chester was showing me an instrument when it suddenly exploded. Shattered glass tore his suit open and he's covered in blood. Call an ambulance." 

Madeline didn't move, or respond, as if she were paralyzed trying to decide whether or not to believe Karla's words. 

"Now! Madeline. Call now or he'll die!" 

Karla's jarring command made Madeline drop the phone and pistol, then race down the stairs to where she believed Chester needed her. Karla picked up the gun and then called Agent James, although unable to tune out Madeline's rasping cough, then, a moment later, her piercing scream. 

It took three weeks of painstaking work by teams of scientists, hazardous materials experts, and criminal investigators to decontaminate and breakdown Chester's labyrinth of laboratories and animal holding facilities, then catalog and destroy his stock of lethal batrachotoxin analogs. The chemists involved were as extremely impressed with the ingenuity of his molecular manipulations as the investigators were revolted by the utter horror of what he'd done with his unparalleled gift of scientific creativity. Chester was a stark reminder of how genius can be used for good or evil, and how they can determine the fate of civil societies. 

Madeline hadn't yet recovered from the mental shock of discovering Chester dead on the floor of his chemistry lab or the severe lung damage she suffered when she tried to drag his body out of the fume-filled room. She was still in intensive care as well as under twenty-four hour guard by the FBI. As far as the other scoundrels in this horrifying death plot, diligent investigation by law authorities had quickly resulted in the arrest and indictment of Madeline's lady friends who helped distribute the toxin, of Sal Conti's two accomplices, Catherine Angelico and Henry Jimson, and Slaggart's contact person, Charles. No one doubted that the full force of the justice system would be applied in view of their heinous crimes. 

So, it should be no surprise that when Karla and her colleagues gathered in the same old conference room at the Portland FBI headquarters, she was again congratulated for a job well-done. However, after coffee and an assortment of Annie's delicious donuts, that inevitable question still hung in the air. Finally, Hannah Marx, Agent in Charge, broached the subject. "This is the fourth person you've killed, Karla. I hope this isn't becoming a habit. Befitting our tradition, it's preferable to apprehend suspects rather than kill them." 

"Are you suggesting that I should have let that madman inject me with whatever was in that little vial he was holding?" Karla replied icily. "Just so you wouldn't have to go to the trouble of justifying his death in whatever report you have to submit to someone up the chain of command?" 

"You know that's not true. But I am concerned about the reputation you're creating—more self-defense deaths in your first year than any agent in the history of the bureau. That gets people's attention." 

Karla was silent for a moment, then said, "Look, Chief, I'm not happy about killing those four men, but in each case it was either me or them. In a situation like that, I'll chose me every time. So, if you can't take the heat, you'll either have to sack me or develop thicker, fireproof skin. Because as an undercover agent, those are the kinds of situations I get into. Which, by the way, brings me to another issue—my status as temporary agent. I want that changed to full-time, permanent Special Agent. And a raise, to the same amount as any other field agent at my level, unless there's the possibility of hazard pay as well." 

Agent James and Captain Tabor remained silent, waiting for Marx to respond. Finally, Marx stood and went to the closed door. Before opening it, she looked at Karla and said, "I'll see what I can do." Then, with an undisguised expression of admiration on her face, she left, closing the door behind her.

On The Way To Brooklyn - By Howard Schneider 

It was the day before Christmas and Al Badowski and his wife Phyllis, and their two kids, thirteen-year-old Patty and her little brother Jason, were stuck in traffic on Route Nine a little south of Catskill, New York. They were headed to Al’s parents’ house in Brooklyn, intending to arrive in time for five-o’clock cocktails before their annual Christmas eve dinner. 

Crawling along at five miles an hour, Phyllis angrily switched from a book CD to an AM traffic station. She was concerned about the worsening weather. Heavy rain was already making the wipers work extra hard to maintain visibility. 

They learned that a heating-oil truck had turned over about twenty miles ahead and traffic would be blocked for the rest of the day. None of the detours listed were near where they were stuck. 

“Patty, give me your phone. My battery’s dead and I need to do a map-search,” Phyllis said over her shoulder. 

“Mom, I’m texting. Use Dad’s.” Patty snapped. 

“Your father forgot his. It’s in the pocket of his other coat. Give me yours. I gotta figure out how to get around this mess.” 

A few minutes later Phyllis said, “Take the next right—Malta Avenue. We can bypass the wreck and get back on Route Nine in about thirty miles. 

“Where does this take us,” Al asked. 

“Along the east side of a big reservoir. Just leave it to your navigator. I’ll take care of it,” Phyllis answered, trying to lift the mood a bit. 

“Mom! Jenny’s waiting.” 

“Okay, okay,” Phyllis said and passed the phone back to her daughter. 

After Al turned west onto Malta, Patty said, “Mom, what'd you do to the phone? The battery’s dead. I need the charger.” 

“It was already low. You should’ve charged it before we left home,” Phyllis said, rifling through the glove compartment. 

“What am I supposed to do now? I need to use it!” 

Paying no attention to her angry daughter, Phyllis said, “Al . . . where’s the damn charger?” 

“Uh… uh, I think it might be in the other car.” 

“How many times have I told you to buy another one of these things so this won’t keep happening?” Phyllis spat back. 

“Sorry, babe. We were so rushed getting out of the house I forgot about it. 

“Daaad. How can you be such a screw-up? Now I can’t text Jenny. She’s gonna think we had a wreck or something.” 

Al ignored his daughter and concentrated on the narrow road. The rain had turned to sleet and was making a mess on the window, and ice was beginning to build up on the road. He felt the slipperiness increase as they got closer to the big body of water, and the heavy cloud cover added darkness to the already shortened winter day. The reduced visibility made it difficult to stay in his lane. 

Finally, they got to the reservoir and turned south along the shore. Ten minutes later they reached a hilly stretch and started a slight climb. Then when they rounded a sharp curve in the twisting road they suddenly encountered blinking red lights. Al hit the brakes and came to a sliding halt next to a state trooper parked across the road. He lowered his window when the trooper approached. 

“Better slow down, sir. Ice is building up real fast. The road’s closed up ahead. A landslide blocked both lanes. You’ll have to go back the way you came.” 

“Is there any way around it? We've got to be in New York City soon. And Route Nine's closed." 

“There’s a back road over that hill,” the trooper said, pointing west. “It rejoins this road on the other side of the landslide. But there may be some snow up there. Ice, too. I wouldn’t recommend it without four-wheel drive or snow-tires. 

“This Chrysler holds the road real good. We won't have any problems. Where’s the turn-off?” 

“Back about half a mile. Just after a big red house. You gonna try it?” 

“Yeah. We’ve already lost too much time.” Al made a U-turn and headed back north, easily finding the road the officer described. It was a narrow blacktop that meandered through a dense forest and quickly increased in elevation. The snowfall became heavier as they climbed; a thick wet layer accumulated on the front window except where the wipers were just able to clear it away. 

They'd been on that road about twenty minutes when Jason, who had until then been focused on his Game Boy, said, “Mom, I gotta to go to the bathroom.” 

“You have to hold it til we get to a gas station or a McDonald’s.” 

“I can’t. I gotta go now. Can’t we stop for a minute?” 

“There’s no place to pull over,” Al said defiantly. 

Then Phyllis said, “Albert! No other cars are gonna come along here. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Stop and let him out. It'll only take a minute." 

“All right, but I don’t like it,” Al replied. "Just make it fast. We gotta get out of this mess." He took his foot off the gas and gently applied the brakes. But even as gently as he did, the big car started sliding on a patch of ice and shifted to the right because of to the road’s slope away from the center. No matter what he did, he was unable to keep the forward motion in a straight line; the momentum was too great and the road too slick. Unable to get the car back under control, it slid off the side, crashed half-way into a rocky snow-covered ditch, and came to a jarring halt. It was at a thirty-degree angle with the left-side tires suspended in mid-air spinning wildly and the underside stuck on the raised berm. 

Phyllis and Patty screamed. Al swore and pounded violently on the steering wheel. Jason burst into tears. 

“Oh, my God!” Phyllis shouted. “What are we gonna do?” 

“Are we gonna die?” Patty cried. 

“Daddy. I gotta pee!” Jason pleaded between sobs. 

“Calm down!” Al yelled. “Phyllis, shut up. Jason! Open the door and do your business. Patty, check your phone again." 

A second later she said, “It’s still dead, Dad.” 

Phyllis started to blurt out something but caught herself, her eyes boring into Al. Then, after a moment, she calmly said, “Al—we can’t sit here until the gas runs out. We'll freeze to death. Unless a car comes along soon, you’ll have to go for help." 

“Are you crazy? It’s too far. And it’s too cold.” 

“Al! You have to! You can walk back to the main road and use someone’s phone. It can’t be more than five miles or so." 

“I’m not dressed for a hike like that. I’d never make it.” 

“Get your snow boots and parka out of the trunk. We’ll be okay with the engine and heater running if you start now.” 

“Uh . . . I left the boots and parka at home. There wasn’t room after I got all the food and presents and damn luggage in.” 

“What? Well, you can’t walk five miles in a foot of snow in those stupid loafers and that thin jacket. Oh, my God. We are in trouble, aren’t we?” 

Just then Jason climbed back into the car, shivering from the cold. 

Patty sat with the phone clutched in her clinched fist whimpering. “Mom. We're gonna die, aren’t we?” 

Then, without warning, there was a soft tap on the driver-side window. 

“Thank God,” Phyllis said, looking past Al to see who it was. 

Al rubbed away the moisture to reveal a scraggly-bearded old man peering at him and lowered the window. “Hello. Are we glad to see you! We’re in a bit of trouble. Do you have a phone we can use?” 

“No. Never needed one. Looks like you're halfway into that ditch,” the old man said. “Probably hung up on the undercarriage. You need a tow.” 

“Yes, sir. We sure do. Do you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and a tow chain or strong rope?” 

No, but my friend might be able to help. He could probably pull you free." 

“Can he get here soon? Does he have a tow truck or something?” 

“He’s on a break right now, but I’ll call him anyway.” The old man stepped away from the car, looked into the woods bordering the road and whistled a single long note. 

A minute later there was the sound of something crashing through brush and low-hanging tree limbs, followed by puffs of snow powder erupting in the air. Then a huge form appeared at the edge of the dark woods, still as a statue. Its glimmering eyes were focused on the old man. 

In the darkness, Al and the others couldn’t tell what it was. Then, apparently in response to some subtle signal, it started coming closer, its identity gradually becoming apparent. It was a gigantic deer, or perhaps an elk, with a magnificent rack of antlers, a thick neck and broad chest. It seemed to radiate strength and undeniable power, and when it reached the old man it remained unmoving as if awaiting instructions. 

Leaving the animal where it stood, the old man walked up the road a way, then returned a few minutes later holding a heavy harness which he slipped onto the patiently waiting animal. He mumbled a few words that Albert couldn’t hear, then came back to the car window. “When I signal, hang on tight.” A few seconds later he waved at Al, then yelled something at animal. When the huge beast lunged forward the car sprang up with a jarring jerk and with an ear-piercing crunch landed squarely on the road, leaving a churning trail of snow, ice, and gravel swirling behind. The whole family cheered. 

Al jumped out of the car, ignored the wet cold penetrating his flimsy shoes, and ran to where the old man was undoing the harness. He held his wallet in one hand and several bills in the other. “Here, sir. I want to pay you for your trouble. You saved our lives.” 

The old man glanced at the bills and said, “Keep your money, Al. Your thanks are enough.” 

Al wondered how the old man knew his name, but instead of asking about that, said, “What kind of animal is that? It bigger than a deer, and those antlers are huge.” 

“A Siberian reindeer. Goes by the name Rudolph. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He’s pretty famous. Anyway, we have to be on our way. Still lots of work to do.” 

With that said, the old man turned toward the woods and whistled two loud blasts. Before Al was back in the driver’s seat and ready to drive off, eight more reindeer had emerged from the forest and made their way to the sled where they formed two columns. Soon the old man had them harnessed. Rudolph was in the lead. In no time the old man was in the sled and tearing past the car. As he sped by, he cried out, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”

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

When Karla entered the FBI headquarters sixth-floor conference room she'd been in many times, Chief Hannah Marx, her field agent Darrel James, and Captain Tom Tabor of the Portland Police Bureau, stood and clapped their hands. 

"Sorry to be late," she said. Her hospital discharge had been delayed by half an hour. "Some Portland Police detective wanted to cross the T's and dot the I's of his investigation into Sal Conti's death." Three days earlier, Karla had killed Conti during an encounter that through the eyes of any unbiased witness could be described as nothing other than justified self-defense. Fortunately this view was shared by the Columbia County District Attorney as well. 

"Must have been Lieutenant Carson—he would do something like that," Tabor said, as if defending Karla. 

"Welcome back, Agent Hammer," Marx said, ignoring Tabor's comment and waving away Karla's apology. She motioned Karla to take a seat and James set a cup of freshly poured coffee in front of her. Tabor took her walking stick and leaned it in a corner, then placed a plate of donuts next to her coffee, the glazed ones from Annie's Donut Shop on Sandy Boulevard. 

Karla glanced at the donuts, then smiled warmly at Tabor and said, "Thank you. They're my favorites." 

"I know," he replied, returning her smile. 

"How are you feeling?" Marx asked after Karla sampled her coffee. "You look a bit battered." 

Karla touched the bandage on her cheek, then said, "Yeah, Conti got in a couple of lucky punches. He was a big guy—and did his best to kill me. But I was luckier, a handful of dirt saved my life. I didn't mean to kill him. Apparently, he died instantly when he fell forward after I pulled his feet from under him and smashed his forehead on the edge of the stepstone. The medical examiner said the front of his head was pulverized. But the key question now is, did he know I was FBI? And if he did, how? If we're gonna find the producer of the poison, we need to know how I was compromised and who else in the gang knows. I've been racking my brain lying in that hospital bed for the last three days but haven't been able to figure that out." 

"We picked up Slaggart an hour after you called from the sawmill," James said, ignoring the fact that Conti's neck was also broken. "Thank God you found Conti's landline since there’s no cell phone service in those hills. When Slaggart showed up that morning at Pioneer Square to pick you up in a car instead of meeting you on foot, like we assumed he would, we weren't able to follow you. I assure you, we won't make that mistake again," he added sheepishly. 

"No. I'm sure you won't, Special Agent James. Another screwup like that in your personnel record and you'll be looking for another job," Marx said stiffly. 

After a moment of silence, Captain Tabor said, "Enough said. What have you learned from Slaggart?" 

James didn't hesitate a moment. "We don't think Slaggart suspected Karla. Our guess is that Conti figured it out on his own. He was heavily involved in Portland commercial real estate and may have discovered that our internet postings about Karla's properties were fake. Irrespective of that, Slaggart doesn't like the prison time he's facing as an accomplice to mass murder and will cooperate to improve his chances for a lighter sentence. The problem is that this gang has maintained absolute separation of its members. Slaggart claims he's only had in-person contact with a woman named Madeline and her lady friends who distribute the toxin, and has only had phone contact with a man he knows only as Charles, the liaison with whoever provides the money to fund the operation. Slaggart says it's Madeline who's in contact with whoever's producing the stuff and has no idea who that is, or where." 

"Okay then. It's obvious what we need to do," Karla blurted out. "I have to get closer to Madeline and gain her total trust. That's the only way we'll get to the producer. Since I already have a relationship with her as one of her distribution helpers, I've proven myself. So, all I have to do is deepen that relationship and see where it leads. Daryl, have Slaggart set up a meeting between me and Madeline. If he wants credit for cooperating, he'll make it happen. But as an insurance policy, let him know what I did to Conti—and that I wouldn't look on him favorably if he were to inform Madeline of our real intention." 

"Karla!" Marx said. "We don’t threaten witnesses or indited suspects. That's not how the FBI works." 

Without responding, Karla took a swig of coffee, then a bite of her donut. After chewing a while, she took another bite, then shook off flakes of glaze that had fallen onto the sleeve of her flannel shirt. Finally, she looked Marx in the eyes and asked, "Do you want these killings stopped?" 

"That's an impertinent question, Karla. Bordering on insubordination." 

"Right, boss. Whatever you say." Then standing and turning to Agent James, "Get me that meeting with Madeline. And make sure that son-of-a-bitch Slaggart doesn't screw this up. Let me know as soon as you get it done. I'll be at my camp." She stepped over to the corner of the room and grabbed her walking stick, then turned to Captain Tabor: "Tom, would you give me a ride, please?" 

"I'd be happy to." 

Karla and Tabor left the room without further comment. 

After Captain Tabor had treated Karla to a cheeseburger at a Burgerville, she was resting in her tent when her phone buzzed. It was Agent James. 

"Slaggart came through—you've got a meeting with Madeline at three o'clock this afternoon. I told her you had another contribution for the project but wanted to give it to her personally. That you prefer dealing her rather than a go-between, like Slaggart." 


"At the Southeast Portland house where they stored the toxin for the last attack. I can drive you—I’ll wait nearby in case you need backup." 

Karla thought for a moment. "No. I'll do Uber, like when I went there before. There's no point in taking a chance you'd be spotted. This meetup has to be perfect. It's our best way of getting to the producer and we can't screw it up." 

It was three on the dot when Karla got out of the car, told the driver she might need him later, and would call if she did. When she rang to bell at the front door, Madeline opened it immediately. 

"Gail! Come in. It's good to see you. There's fresh coffee. Would you like a cup?" 

Karla sensed Madeline's anxious mood as she stepped into the living room. "It's nice to see you again as well. It's been a while, hasn't it? Coffee would be great, thank you." 

"Make yourself at home. I'll get the coffee. How do you take it?" 

Karla watched Madeline scurry out of the room without waiting for an answer to her question, then sat on the sofa and gathered her thoughts. She was thrown off by Madeline's apparent nervousness, wondering if she suspected something wasn't right about the suddenness of her visit. 

Madeline returned a moment later carrying a tray with a pot of coffee, two cups, and sugar and cream. She set it on the low table in front of the sofa. "Help yourself," she said, then sat in the easy chair across from Karla, perching on the front edge of the cushion and looking around the room to avoid Karla's questioning look. 

After a sip of coffee, Karla leaned forward and said, "Madeline, is something wrong? Are you upset by my visit?" 

"Well, it's . . . it's  just that it's so unusual. It's not by the protocol Pastor Slaggart always makes us follow. We, you and me, I mean, should only meet when the pastor is present, or for a distribution job." She wrung her hands nervously. " I don't understand why you're bringing the money instead of him. It's never been like this before. We don't like it when things aren't like they're supposed to be." 

Karla picked up on Madeline's use of the word we instead of I." "Would it help if I meet your partner and explain why I'm here in person, rather than Pastor Slaggart? There's a perfectly good reason, and I'm sure both of you, or all of you if that's the case, would be satisfied. I want to eliminate any doubts about my motives, which, I promise are sincere. I'm dedicated to this project but just want to see for myself that it is adequately funded. After all, it's my own money that I'm contributing and have a right to see that it's used appropriately, don't you think?" 

Madeline was caught off guard by Karla's passion. "I, I, I'm not sure what to do. I don't doubt you, certainly not, but it's not like we always do things. Chester—I mean—oh my God. I didn't mean to say that name. Please don't tell anyone I did. Oh my God, what am I gonna do now?" 

"Madeline, it's okay. Anything you tell me is in strict confidence. Now,  who is Chester? And why can't I meet him?" 

"I'm not allowed to talk about him. He's a secret. I'd be in trouble if I did. You won't say anything, will you?" 

"Of course not, Madeline. You're my friend, and friends don't betray each other, do they? 

"No. I guess not. But—" 

"Is Chester your friend?" 

Madeline was quiet for a moment, then said, "No. He's my husband. But I don't think he's my friend’ I don't have any friends." 

"Does he hurt you? Are you afraid of him?" 

"He doesn't hurt me . . . but I am afraid of him. He has a bad temper. But it's okay if I do what he says . . . and if I stay out of the basement." 

"The basement?" 

"Yes. That's where his laboratory is. And the bugs and toads, or frogs, or whatever they are." 

"Bugs? And toads?" 

"He has lots of them. Yellow ones. I saw them once when I tried to find him. He got really mad and I knocked over one of their tanks and some escaped, but he got them back. He was really angry. I never went back down there." 

Karla could barely believe what she was hearing, how forthcoming Madeline was with such vital information. "Madeline, even though Chester may not always treat you right, he must appreciate what you do for the project. He produces the toxin but depends on you for its distribution. Doesn’t he appreciate you for that?" 

Madeline thought for a moment. "I don't know. Maybe. He doesn't talk much about things like that. Mostly, he wants to know about the money so he can keep doing whatever he does down there. Whatever it is, it costs a lot. It's what he lives for—what he tells me all the time is advancing the frontier of biochemical innovation, whatever that means. I'm always having to ask the pastor for more money. But as long as Chester keeps making that toxin, and we keep killing those vermin infecting our city, the money keeps coming in, and that keeps Chester happy. And when he's happy, he leaves me alone. That's all I want. Just to be left alone." 

Karla sat back against the sofa cushion, and Madeline did the same. She reached for her mug and took a swallow. Then her eyes met Karla's. "Do you think I'm a bad person for killing all those people?" 

Karla was torn between the revelation of Madeline's dismal situation—and the warped state of her mind—and her own need to find and confront Chester, clearly the madman who was producing the toxin. He had to be stopped, and she was the only one providing an opportunity to do that. "No, Madeline, I don't think you're a bad person. You're only doing what has to be done. But what I do think is that you need a friend to help you deal with the challenges you face. Let me be that friend. Take me to Chester so I can give him this twenty-five-thousand dollars." She took a fat roll of crisp bills from her purse and held it out for Madeline to see. "I’ll tell him how important you are—to him and to the project. What a loyal wife you are, and what a valuable soldier you are in this war. That without you, there would be no project. And if there's no project, there'd be no money to support his biochemical innovation." 

Madeline abruptly got up from the chair and said, "Okay. But I need to take care of these things first, then we’ll go." She picked up Karla's mug, put it and everything else on the tray, then took it to the kitchen. Karla remained sitting and listened to the sounds of running water and the light clatter of cups being washed, dried, and put away. She looked up when Madeline returned and calmly watched as she retrieved her jacket from the hall closet and her purse from the end table next to the easy chair. "Are you ready?" Madeline asked after she opened the front door. 

Karla stifled a smile and replied, "Yes. Let's go."

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

Being unfamiliar with automobiles, Karla didn't notice when Slaggart pressed the door lock switch on his armrest before she opened the passenger door to get out of the car. It was the one he'd driven from Portland to the deserted, fenced-in sawmill where they'd just arrived. After she'd climbed out of the car, she stood in front of the closed door of what a faded sign hanging lopsided on the wall indicated was an office, Slaggart's order to "Knock on it. They're waiting for you," still rang in her ears. Her increasing discomfort as the drive from Portland grew longer, the remoteness of the place he'd brought her to, the locked gate, and Slaggart's lack of openness made her even more warry. She watched as Slaggart drove back to the gate and unlocked it, went  through, relocked it, then drove off. All of that added up to a heightened sense of danger and she decided not to blindly announce her presence. The thought of ending up like the woman Eunice, who'd been connected to the homeless killings and found dead in the river, added to her fear that the danger might be real. 

Back on the dirt lane out to Highway 30, Slaggart tried to call Conti, exactly as he'd been instructed to do, but there was no signal on his phone. Five minutes later, after he got back to Route 30, he tried again and got through. 

Karla stood for a moment longer and looked around. The weather-worn door she was supposed to knock on was to a low, shed-like structure jutting out from a huge, sprawling, two-story dilapidated building—obviously, the office attached to the sawmill behind it. The rough ground was littered with scraps of debris strewn around as if scattered by an angry windstorm. She smiled briefly at the thought of a woman wearing high-heels in a situation like this—something she'd never done in her entire life. She glanced at her gleaming, leather loafers and acknowledged the wisdom of the sturdy shoes and practical pant suit selected by the FBI property manager for her business attire—be prepared for anything was one of the key instructions taught at Quantico. They were right about that, flashed across her mind before she refocused on her present situation. 

Now what? she asked herself. On edge by Slaggart's refusal to let her know what to expect inside the office or who awaited her, and his quick departure and relocking of the gate, she decided to investigate the building before she announced her arrival. Know the lay of the land before taking action, was another commonsense lesson from Quantico. She arbitrarily turned right and hurried to the corner of the office structure. At the corner, she turned and saw an open door hanging off-kilter on its rusted hinges. She was careful to be as quiet as possible as she crept toward the opening leading into the sawmill itself. 

When Karla got inside the crumbling structure, with its expanse of broken-down mill equipment and piles of rotting logs spread out in front of her, she turned to where she thought a door from the office into the mill would be. She made her way forward quietly in the dim light, making sure her walking stick didn't make its usual thump-thump sound as she limped along the filthy floor. The door was where she thought it sould be, but there was no doorknob, just a heavy hasp and substantial padlock. She wasn't surprised since security would be a major concern for whoever was using the office. She put her ear next to the door's surface but didn't hear anything—just silence. But when she stepped away from the door and was looking around the interior of the building for a good hiding place in case she needed one, she heard a phone ring. It was in the office. She went back to the door and put her ear against it again. 

Inside what had been the busy office of a thriving sawmill fifty years earlier, Sal Conti was waiting impatiently for either a knock on the locked door or a call from Slaggart. He'd converted the former office into a high-tech communication center where he ran the Northwest Coast extension of his New York family's expansive crime syndicate. Slaggart was a nobody, a local guy from Ohio posing as a minister of an off-beat, low-rent church Conti's lawyer had found to carry out their plan to eliminate the cause of the growing decline in Portland's downtown property values—in his view a plague of homeless bums and degenerates. It was those property values, which had been growing rapidly over the past decade, that were the basis of his family's investments, the way they were converting their East Coast drug and protection racket earnings into legitimate profits. It was his job to manage this undertaking, and even though he was family, he'd well understood that he better not fail—there was no tolerance for incompetence in his line of work—family or not. Finally, the call from Slaggart came through on his land line, the only phone service he had in this remote location. Before Slaggart could say anything, Conti snapped, "Where are you? What's going on?" 

"I dropped her off ten minutes ago and I'm on my way back to Portland. Isn't she with you? I left her at the office door." 

"What? No. She hasn't shown up. I don't know what's going on, but I don't like it. I'll find her if she's here." Conti slammed the phone down onto its cradle and went to the door and opened it. Seeing no one there, he stepped down onto a large, basalt stepstone and looked around. He saw fresh tire tracks from Slaggart's car, then noticed footprints where the woman must have gotten out. His eyes followed them as they trailed off to his left along the front of the office. What the hell's going on? he wondered, then followed them to the corner. 

Inside the building, Karla heard Conti end the call and then the front door slam shut. "Now I really have to find a hiding place," she mumbled. then started toward an ancient dumpster about twenty yards away. She was nearly there when she heard the phone ring again and keep on ringing until it finally stopped. When she heard the muffled sound of a voice coming from the office, she hurried back to the door to listen. 

When Conti saw that the woman's footprints went into the mill, he followed them toward the open doorway. But before he reached the door, he heard the office phone ringing. Glancing at his watch, he knew it would be his cousin Danny calling for their regular update. He rushed back in time to pick up just before Danny hung up. "I'm here," he answered, out of breath from running for the phone. 

"What took so long to answer? You had me worried. Anything wrong?" 

"No. I was outside." The last thing Conti wanted was for his crazy cousin to think he had a problem taking care of business. 

Not bothering with small-talk, Danny said, "Your numbers for this month don't look so good, Sally. What's going on?" the menace in his icy voice was impossible to ignore. 

"Like I told you, the town's coming apart at the seams. Tenants are breaking leases; property values are collapsing. But it's temporary. It'll come back as soon as the city gets its act together and chases out these sidewalk squatters. Then business will return to normal. It'll just take a little time, that's all." 

"You told us you were helping that along. How's that going?" 

"Good. It's under control. A big event's coming up soon. One that should make a difference." 

"Yeah? What kind of difference, Sal?' Will it help your numbers? Vinny's starting to worry. You know it not good when Vinny gets like that." 

Conti knew he shouldn't over-promise, but also knew he had to hold off Vinny making any rash decisions—like sending someone from New York to Portland to oversee their business here. "Look, Danny, the problem we had getting to the next step is fixed. We're on track for a major kill. Don't worry, we're back on schedule." 

"You saying you'll get this done?" 

"Yeah. That's what I'm saying." 

"Okay. I'll tell Vinny you'll have it under control by the time we talk next week." 

"You tell him that. No problem." 

"You know Vinny don't like being disappointed. Capish?" 

"Yeah. I understand." 

There was silence for a moment, then Karla heard heavy footsteps cross the wood floor then the front door slam shut again. I've got a minute or two to hide before whoever that is comes in here, she thought at once. She scanned the huge space again, looking for the nearest opportunity for concealment. She also wanted to be able to see who it would be. But whoever it was, she knew from the conversation she'd just overheard it wouldn't be a friendly encounter. Seeing nothing close by, she started toward the dumpster she'd seen before, but then spotted a set of wooden stairs at the near end of the building. It was at least fifty yards away but offered a greater chance of escaping discovery than crouching behind the dumpster. With her purse looped across her chest and holding her walking stick in her hand, she ran as fast as she could toward the stairs, the way she'd learned at Quantico to minimize her limp without the use of her stick. The rubber soles of her FBI loafers made the run easier and quieter. When she reached the bottom step, she glanced over her shoulder and saw that the man hadn't yet come through the door she'd used. 

Out of breath, Karla managed to scramble up the staircase, feeling how wobbly it was with each step. She stepped into a high-ceilinged space, like an oversized attic loft. It extended to the other end of the mill. Rusted machines, wooden crates, stacks of what looked like rotting lumber, and trashy debris were everywhere. Then she noticed an opening in the back wall that must have been ten or twelve feet wide. It was in the middle of the loft and when she made her way silently through the maze of junk to where it was, she saw that it opened onto a huge lot where decaying mill products—logs, lumber, piles of sawdust and scrap wood—were scattered. A rust-encrusted iron beam above the door stuck out about ten feet with a weathered wooden pulley at the end. She estimated the distance to the ground to be at least fifteen feet, too far to jump safely. She wondered if there was another way out. 

During the short time it took her to investigate the loading door, she listened for sounds from the floor below but heard nothing. I've got to see what's happening down there, she thought. After a quick look around, she knew the only way to see the floor below was from the top of the stairs. There was a staircase at each end of the loft; she arbitrarily chose the one she'd come up on. When she crouched on the top stair, she felt the whole stairway sway back and forth, then come to a new balance point. After she was sure the structure was stable, she leaned down as low as she could and managed to get a view of the entire space. There he was, standing near the doorway he'd come through, silent and unmoving, scanning the dimly lit interior. 

Conti was breathing hard and felt his heart racing. He'd done his share of working the street in New York, but he'd left that life behind a long time ago. Now his battles were fought from behind a desk, and he felt at a loss for how to handle this situation. His thoughts bounced around in his head: first, he had to find the woman and get rid of her. Evidently, she'd become suspicious and decided to change the plan. That jerk Slaggart must have given her reason to suspect something was wrong. Now she could be anywhere in this damn dilapidated ruin of a mill. When his gaze ran along the back wall, he noticed a large, boarded-over double-door in the middle of the room, then another open doorway in the back wall in the right-hand corner, like the one on the front of the building he'd just entered. Glancing to the left, he saw another one in the far corner as well. He turned back to the doorway out to the back closer to where he stood and mumbled, "Maybe she went out there. I'll check for footprints outside in the dirt." He started walking slowly toward the corner doorway. 

Karla was unsettled when she saw how big he was, although from her vantage point in the shadows and squatting precariously on the second step, she couldn't tell much more about him. But at least he was unlikely to spot her. Then he began walking in her direction, apparently heading to the open doorway in the back wall close to where she was perched. Afraid he would see her as he came closer, she decided to go back up to the loft and out of sight. But when she moved to step up, the staircase suddenly shuddered, ripped away from the wall it was attached to, and collapsed in an explosion of splintered, rotten wood, and a cloud of billowing dust with Karla obscured in its midst. Conti was startled by the crash but recovered quickly and walked toward what was left of the structure. When he was close enough to make out the details as the dust cleared, he spotted the woman lying on her back among the broken stair pieces. When she moaned, then tried to kick off a board across her legs, he took a pistol from his waist band and said, "Don't move until I say so." 

Karla froze at his command, then turned her head enough to see him. He was older than she'd thought, maybe mid-fifties, short gray hair, hard face, huge arms and broad shoulders. The kind of man a woman her size had no chance of overcoming, especially with only a smattering of self-defense moves she'd been taught at Quantico. Glancing around, she realized that her walking stick was on the loft floor where she'd laid it when she used the stairs as a perch. She felt panic set in as he came closer, stepping gingerly on or around shattered remains of the stair structure. Conti grabbed Karla's jacket sleeve and jerked her up as if she were no more than a ragdoll, holding tight until she got her balance. She felt dull pain in her left shoulder and a sharp stab in her neck but was able to stumble through the wreckage as he pulled her along, keeping the gun he held in his other hand pointed at her midsection. "We're gonna have a little talk, lady—in my office. Let's go. Don't try anything stupid—I'd just as soon kill you now instead of later if you give me reason to." He shoved her forward and said, "We're going out that door, then to the office. Move! I'm right behind you." 

When Karla reached the doorway they'd both used to enter the building, she hesitated a moment to ease the pain in her neck. Conti pushed her forward, accelerating her step down to the ground, a drop of about a foot. When she landed, she sensed Conti behind her, and that he would be stepping down the next second. She quickly grabbed the edge of the door where it hung off the jamb by a single hinge and slammed it back with all the force she could muster. But he was quicker than she'd anticipated and stopped it with his meaty hand, then hit her between her shoulder blades with his fist so hard she catapulted forward and landed face-down in the dirt. 

"Get up, bitch. I told you not to do anything stupid. That was stupid." 

Karla didn't move—his blow had knocked the wind out of her. But when Conti yelled at her again as she recovered her breathing, she slowly rose to her hands and knees. As she did, she scooped up a fistful of sandy dirt, then struggled to her knees and stood without his prodding. 

"Go on," he said, poking her in the back with the pistol. She winced at the sharp pain and took a tentative step forward. Realizing she could still walk, she stumbled toward the corner of the office structure, then around the corner to the door. "Open it," he said, pressing the gun into her back again. 

Karla grasped the doorknob and made an effort to turn it. "It's locked," she said. "It won't turn." 

"It can't be locked," Conti said angrily. He pushed her aside and reached in front of her for the knob. At the same instant, Karla threw the fistful of dirt in his eyes, dropped to the ground, and spun around behind him. When the dirt blinded him, he fired three shots in quick succession at where Karla had been standing. Then his world suddenly turned upside down. Crouched behind him, Karla grabbed his pant cuffs and jerked his legs back and away from the doorway, causing him to plunge forward. His forehead hit the stepstone with a solid splat when he landed. Karla kicked the pistol aside from where he'd dropped it, then stepped to where he lay unmoving, his blood spreading over the stone. Bracing herself with one hand against the building, she lifted her leg as high as she could and rammed her foot into the back of his thick neck. She heard a faint click. She did it again, this time with a loud crack. There was no pulse when she felt for one. She stepped around the body, then, avoiding the pooling blood, opened the door and went into the office where she used Conti's land line to call Agent James.

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

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.