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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                                                 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"An offer? What kind of offer?" 

"Money. Lots of it." 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Slaggart called Madeline as soon as he ended the call from Charles. From the desperation revealed in that short conversation with his link to the "Group," as Charles called it, he realized how serious the situation had become and  knew he had to come up quickly with a solution to the delay in implementing the plan. The danger from failing the group's demands was far greater than he had thought when a he'd consented to serve as the point man for their scheme few months earlier. A scheme the size of which only now was he comprehending. When he'd agreed to plant the seeds for reducing the population of Portland's homeless squatters in the downtown blocks, he naively assumed that a few suspicious and in his view justified deaths would lead to a quick clearing out of the town's sidewalk and tent-city dwellers, and that out of fear they would leave of their own accord. But he'd been wrong. Instead, the deaths provoked a forceful response from the authorities that surprised him. Evidently, it also surprised the group of business people who'd come up with the idea of scaring off the homeless denizens that were causing downtown business and property values to fall, which for them was unacceptable and something they would never allow, as he now understood, no matter what the cost might be. 

From the caller ID Madeline saw that it was Slaggart. She knew he'd want an update in Chester's progress in getting the project back on track. But she had nothing to report. Chester had been in the basement all afternoon and she had no idea what he'd been able to do. So she let the call go to message, even as the pastor's pleading for her to answer became more insistent. Instead, she did what she'd never done before. To look for him, she went down into the forbidden world of Chester's basement laboratories. Laboratories paid for by the Group and designed for one reason and one reason only—the production of industrial quantities of one of the world's most deadly substance—Amazonian poison dart toxin. 

Chester didn't care that the Group wanted the toxin for such a monstrous purpose. He couldn't care less about a bunch of homeless degenerates. For him, it was the challenge of scaling up an exquisitely difficult chemical synthesis that required the integration of biological, biochemical,  and chemical synthesis and engineering steps, each of which in itself presented unimaginable difficulties. For him, it would be the satisfaction of accomplishing what he believed no one else could do. 

"Chester! Where are you? We need to talk," Madeline yelled when she got to the bottom of the stairs. Hearing no answer, she turned the knob on a wide, grey steel door directly in front of her and pushed. To her surprise it swung open. When she stepped inside a small room, she called out for Chester again. Still no answer. Glancing around, she saw what looked like biohazard suites and lab coats hanging on hooks along one wall. There was another door on the opposite side of the room. Thinking he couldn't hear her because of the closed door, she decided to look further to see if she could find him. Picturing scenes from CSI TV programs featuring laboratory workers, she put on one of the lab coats before she tried the next door. It was also unlocked. 

"Chester? Are you here?" she hollered when she entered a long, well-lit hallway. She was surprised by the size of the basement—there were a half-dozen doors stretched out in front of her. She felt cool air blowing over her, sensing that it was drafting toward vents spaced along the ceiling. "Chester," she yelled again, louder this time. 

After waiting a while with no response, she started along the hall, trying each door as she came to it. The first three were locked, but the fourth yielded when she turned the knob. She eased it open enough to peek inside. Diffuse light revealed a bank of large aquaria on the opposite wall, side by side from floor to ceiling crowding four sturdy shelves. "Chester, are you in here?" 

There was no answer, just the hum of air exchange units pulling dank, putrid-smelling air into vents scattered across the ceiling. Curious about what was in the glass tanks, Madeline ventured into the room and tiptoed over to the shelves where she got close enough to look into one of the aquaria that was at eye level. "Oh my god!" The tank held little black and yellow frogs. There were so many she couldn't see the glass bottom, hundreds of them maybe. They were constantly moving, hopping all around, some high enough to bump into the glass plate covering the tank. Chester must have solved the problem of the beetles that he fed to these little guys, she thought. Thank God. Now we can get the project going again. 

"Madeline! What the hell are you doing in here?" 

Chester's angry yell scared her, and she spun around to face him. But in her sudden pivot, she fell back against the shelf and knocked askew some of the glass lids covering the tanks. When Chester saw what she'd done, he screamed, dropped the two lidded buckets onto the floor, and rushed to where frogs were jumping out of the three jostled containers. Several had landed on Madeline and dozens were hopping across the floor toward the still open door. 

"Don't touch them! If you get any of the secretion on your hand and then in your mouth or nose, you'll die." He quickly brushed off the ones clinging to her lab coat with his gloved hands and pushed her away from the shelving. Then he noticed some of the frogs heading to the open door and rushed to slam it shut in time to prevent them from getting away. 

"I'm sorry, Chester. You scared me. I was looking for you." 

"You shouldn't be down here! Ever!" he said as he frantically gathered the escaped frogs and returned them to their tanks. Take off that lab coat. Leave it here and go back upstairs." 

"But I need to know what to tell Pastor Slaggart. I think he's getting desperate for us to get the project going again. He's waiting for me to call." 

"He can wait. Right now, just get out of here. Take a shower and use lots of soap. I'll be up later and we can decide what to tell him then." 

Madeline discarded the lab coat and rushed out of the door, afraid to evoke further wrath by asking when he'd be coming upstairs. 

It was after ten p.m. when Chester finally came upstairs from his basement labs and demanded dinner. 

"I just have to warm it up, Honey," Madeline said, getting up from the kitchen table where she'd been waiting for him to finish his work. "I fixed your favorite meatloaf, with Ritz crackers like you told me your mother made it. I've been keeping it warm in the oven." 

"I'm hungry," he grunted as he took his usual seat. 

"Is everything okay now? Are the frogs making the toxin?" Madeline asked tentatively. 

"There's gotta be something to go with the meatloaf. What else is there?" Chester asked, ignoring Madeline's question. 

"Mashed potatoes. And Jell-O for dessert." 

Madeline took a plate from the oven and put it down in front of Chester "There's plenty more if you want it." Then she sat across from him and remained silent while she watched him eat. 

After Chester finished a second bowl of Jell-O and Madeline cleared the table, she repeated her question about the toxin. 

Chester drained what was left of the Coke and then, with the hint of a smile, said, "Everything's okay now. I can breed as many beetles as I need. That means I can expand the frog population and make enough toxin to satisfy Slaggart's requirements no matter how many people he wants to kill. He could kill everybody in the whole damn city if he wanted to." 

"Oh, Chester, that's wonderful. Pastor Slaggart will be so happy. But I don't think he'd want to kill regular people, do you? He just wants to get rid of the bad ones. He said that's what God wants him to do. 

"He's waiting for a call—I'll do it now." She stood and started to leave the kitchen, but then turned back to Chester. "When should I tell him you'll have more?" 

"It's too late to call him now. Give him the news tomorrow. And you can tell him that in ten days I'll have enough for a thousand doses for oral consumption, or about four hundred if it's used topically. I can have a lot more than that in the next batch. Tell him that. too. And tell him I need more money. I gotta buy supplies." 

The next morning, a taxi dropped Karla off at Slaggart's church a half hour past their prearranged 10 a.m. meeting. When he answered her buzz at the front door, he said, "You're late. I was wondering if you'd changed your mind—maybe had second thoughts. 

"Not in the least. I was delayed by a business matter, that's all. Shall we continue yesterday's discussion? Have you thought of how I might help with your project?" 

"Yes, I have. But before we take that up, I want to say how impressed I am with your business acumen—you seem to have a talent for commercial real estate. That is if you are the same Gail Brandon that owns all those properties listed under that name." 

"I presumed you'd do your homework—yes, that's me. Although I must admit, after my husband's death I just took over the family business and relocated it here to Portland." 

"Yes, I saw his obituary. He must have been a good businessman. And you seem to have done well on your own." 

'I have—and I don't want my holdings diminished by an invasion of low-lifes destroying the fabric of our city." 

"Which brings us to that very subject. I've been wondering if you intend to support our project with more funding. Is that what you have in mind?" 

"No. I don't give money to causes I don't know anything about. No, what I have in mind is to become involved in a way that I can use my organizational skills. Make things happen, get things done. Time is slipping by, and I want to help make sure your "goal" is reached sooner than later. I've noticed there's a lull in deaths lately. Lost momentum can be difficult to regain. That's how I can help." 

Slaggart was quiet for a moment, perhaps intimidated by Karla's spirited response to his question. He hadn't encountered such forcefulness in Madeline or the women who worked for her. Finally, he said, "Your enthusiasm is appreciated, but I couldn't place you in a position of authority without verifying your capabilities. The people I report to would never allow that, even with a strong recommendation from me. There is, however, an opportunity for you to prove yourself." 

"I understand, Pastor. I would feel the same way if our positions were reversed. But would it help if I meet these people you report to?" 

"That's out of the question. Their identity is protected. I haven't even met them." 

"You don't know who you're working for? I don't like that. Perhaps I should reconsider my offer to help." 

"There's no need for that. I communicate with the group through a man I have full access to. He has the authority to speak on their behalf." 

"I appreciate the need for extreme secrecy in this situation, but I still don't like it. What is this opportunity, as you describe it, to prove myself?" 

"One of our front-line soldiers had to take a leave of absence. You could replace her. You'd be part of a team that prepares and distributes our donations to the homeless community. It's vitally important work—the key to our success." 

"Is this what would be called starting at the bottom?" 

"Call it what you want, but it's a critical component of our operation. And I assure you, your efforts won't be overlooked." 

"Sounds like I have no other choice. When do I start?" 

"I'll introduce you to the woman who runs the team. Can you come back this afternoon?' 

"What time?" 

"Two o'clock." 

"I’ll check." Karla took a phone from her Gucci purse and pretended to look at a calendar. "I can be here at three," she said as she returned the phone to her handbag, then left saying anything else. 

By sheer chance, Karla's taxi pulled up to the front door of Slaggart's church as Madelaine was getting out of the car she'd parked in a nearby space. When they met at the entrance, Madeline said, "You must be the woman who'll be taking Eunice's place." 

"The pastor said something about someone taking a leave of absence, but not her name. I guess that's who I'll replace. Are you the team leader?" 

"Yes. I'm Madeline. Come on. Let's find the pastor." 

"I'm Gail," Karla said as she followed Madeline into the building. "I'm looking forward to working with you." 

"Good. We're going to be busy. We have to make up for lost time," Madeline said as she led Karla to Slaggart's office. She knocked on the closed door. When he yelled, "Come in," she pushed it open and marched up to Slaggart's desk with Karla in tow. "We're back in production." she said." 

"Thank God," the pastor responded. 

"God? Thank Chester, he's the one who figured out what the problem was," Madeline corrected, then looked at Karla and continued with a torrent of words. "He's my husband. He's a genius. Nothing can stop him when he sets his mind on something. He outsmarted those little beetles and got the frogs back on their diet. Everything's gonna be just fine. Now we can get back to work." 

"Madeline! Stop! Gail is new to our project and doesn't need to know these details," Slaggart said, interrupting Madeline's gushing praise of Chester and her revealing information best kept secret. 

Slaggart's reprimand quickly brought Madeline back to her usual controlled composure, She looked at Karla and said, "Forget what I just said. All you need to know is that we have to get to work. We have dozens of gloves to dispense to homeless camps. We'll do it tomorrow. We'll meet tomorrow morning at the house where we prepare donations and you can meet the rest of the team and collect gloves to distribute. Maybe you should come along with me your first time." 

"I can do that . . . but what do gloves have to do with getting rid of homeless people?" 

Slaggart jumped in and said, "Madeline can fill you in on that tomorrow. There's no need to go into details at this time. But right now, I have church business to deal with, so we'll have to bring this meeting to an end Madeline will tell you where to meet." 

Madeline gave Karla the address and told her to be there at eight o'clock. 

An hour later, Karla was pouring a second cup of stale coffee from an urn that was left from an earlier meeting in one of the small conference rooms at FBI headquarters. She sat down across from Agent Darrel James, who, like her, was waiting for Agent in Charge, Hanna Marx, to join them. A few minutes later, she came in and sat down. She glanced at James, then turned to Karla and said, "Darrel says you've got a lead. Tell me." 

"It happened so fast I'm still processing it. The phony material about Gail Brandon that our guys posted on the internet must have been convincing because Slaggart's putting me to work right away. Seems that I'm taking the place of the woman recovered from the river a few days ago. Her name was Eunice. I'm supposed to meet the team tomorrow morning to help distribute gloves. According to the team leader, a middle-aged woman named Madeline, we're soldiers in an army of killers. Apparently, we're the ones who take the poisoned products to whatever sites they've selected. The gloves she mentioned must be contaminated with the poison. But the most important thing I learned is that Madeline's husband is the one who produces the poison. Before Slaggart shut her up, she said he'd just solved a production problem, something to do with beetles and frogs, whatever that's about. Somebody should check that out right away." 

"Good work, Karla," Marx said, "this may be the break we've been waiting for. I—" 

"James interrupted Marx and with urgency in his voice and said, "If the gloves are what you suspect, we can't let them be taken and used by anyone. That's gonna be a problem. But we can't do anything to prevent that from happening that would cast suspicion on you." 

"Right. But if we intercept them somehow, and then there're no deaths reported in the papers, these crazies will know they've been compromised, and that would come back to me," Karla replied at once. 

"How about this?" James said after a moment. "Our agents follow you soldiers when you take the gloves out to spread around. We'll grab all the gloves as soon as whoever drops them off leaves the scene and before any homeless people have a chance to touch them. As far as reported deaths go, we'll put out false reports over the next few days listing fatalities. Our PR people can make it sound real official. The local papers won't doubt casualty numbers released by the U.S. government and the Portland Police Bureau." 

Marx was quiet for a bit, then said, "The other option is to raid your meeting with the team tomorrow morning, arrest them based on possession of the contaminated gloves, and interrogate them to learn about others involved in this operation." 

Karla took a swig of coffee, made a face, then pushed the cup away. "The problem with that scenario is that the soldiers probably don't know anything about the other people involved, especially about who Slaggart reports to. There's gotta be some high-powered backers behind this hideous plot, the ones who are funding it. We won't get those bastards through the soldiers. No. Let's go with Darrel's plan. It'll give me time to get deeper into the operation." 

Marx shook her head. "The risk is that there'll be a slip-up and that someone will use those gloves before we can confiscate them, and that they'll die. We can't let that happen. The FBI can't knowingly poison our citizens. Not even for the greater good." 

"That's my responsibility . . . to prevent that from happening," James answered. "We'll watch those gloves as if they were the most important things on the planet. Which, as far as I'm concerned, tomorrow morning they will be. I guarantee we'll make this work—it's too important not to. Believe me, I don't want to be a murderer." 

"All right, then. Do it." Marx said, then stood and looked at Karla. "You pulled a rabbit out of the hat once before, I sure as hell hope you can do it again," she added, then left without more comment.

Undercover Agent: A Helping Hand, Episode Six – By Howard Schneider  

Day Seven: Wednesday 

Huddled in the FBI headquarters conference room they always met in, were Karla, Captain Tabor, and Agent James. The overly sweet pastries and donuts usually supplied had been replaced by bagels, cream cheese, and smoked salmon. A toaster sat next to the coffee pot. The coffee was an improvement as well. 

"Looks like somebody finally paid attention to your complaints about the culinary quality of our past breakfast selections," Tabor said to James as he refilled their cups for the second time. 

After they shoved their plates aside, James opened a file folder and read Karla's note from the night before out loud: 

"Oregon City informer said the minister calling for death to homeless people is 

named Slaggart. The church is a few miles south of his camp. That's all he knows."

"So, what should we do about this?" James asked. 

"I'll pay him a visit. See what I can find out," Karla replied. "What else could we do?" 

"You can't just walk in and start asking questions? If he is the guy behind this madness, he's certainly not going to talk about it with a perfect stranger. What would you say to him?" 

"Right. So, how about I tell him I hate the homeless, heard about his message, and want to know how I can help him achieve his goal?" 

"You think you could convince him of that? It's a stretch. You've got to give him a good reason to believe you." 

"If there's one thing I've learned from you guys, it's how to lie. Yeah, I think I can convince him." 

Tabor refreshed her coffee, then asked, "When?" 

"The sooner the better. Like today. This afternoon." 

"Then we'd better get busy," Tabor said. The three of them spent the rest of the morning fleshing out a plausible cover story for Karla. 

While Karla, Tabor, and James were planning Karla's approach to Slaggart and formulating credible backup material, the Portland Police Chief was on the phone with Dr. Sarah Musetti, the Stanford University chemist who'd identified the toxin as a previously unreported derivative of batrachotoxin. "It's a longshot, but maybe worth following up," she was saying. "His name is Rostislov Roskovich. Apparently, he changed his name to Chester Rose after he became a US citizen. He worked in the lab of a colleague of mine at Cal Tech. From what my friend told me, he's a brilliant chemist and experienced in natural products. She fired him after he stole chemicals and equipment from her lab to set up his own home lab. She said he's a bit of a nut job, too. Those are her words, not mine. She said he was sort of a recluse, didn't mix with others in the lab and kept to himself. But what really caught my attention was that his doctoral thesis was on the synthesis of novel batrachotoxin compounds." 

"Does your colleague know where he is now?" 

"No. Seems he disappeared several years ago. Nobody's heard from him since." 

"All right, Dr. Musetti. Thank you for following up with your colleagues. We'll issue a search bulletin for this guy right away. Please, let us know if you get any further information about him, or anyone else worth looking into." 

After the call ended, Chief Samson instructed his administrative assistant to issue a state-wide search for Chester Rose, and he included the name Rostislov Roskovich. Then he called Hanna Marx at the FBI and filled her in on what he'd just learned about the elusive batrachotoxin chemist. But as if the information about Chester Rose hadn't been enough to rev up the wheels of justice, as soon as the chief ended his call with Marx, his assistant rushed into his office with a photo of a woman whose body had been fished out of the Columbia River only an hour earlier. She was a dead ringer for the woman whom the witness saw entering the Gresham homeless shelter the week before. What next? he wondered as he placed a call to Captain Tabor 

In a rural area southeast of town, in the kitchen of Chester and Madeline's isolated farmhouse in Clackamas County, as he emerged from a long morning in his warren of basement laboratories Madeline greeted Chester with an anxious look on her heavily rouged face and a big glass of iced Coca Cola in her outstretched hand. "I fixed your favorite lunch, honey—Spam and seven-cheese macaroni." 

He took his usual seat at the table without responding and watched as she carefully sat the drink down in front of him. Then he waited silently as she spooned a huge serving of the yellow muck onto his plate. Then she put the pot back on the stove and took a seat across from him. 

"Well?" Madeline asked nervously. "Are your bugs making the toxin yet?" 

Chester took a long drink of the cola, then a forkful of macaroni. After he swallowed, he looked at her. "Maybe." 

"Maybe? Just maybe? Don't you know? Don't you know how important it is? When will you know?" 

Chester, unperturbed by Madeline's frantic questions, alternated between mouthfuls of the cheesy mac and cold Coke. "Maybe tomorrow," he eventually replied. 

Madeline was close to tears and her face was contorted with fear. "We were supposed to spread the gloves around today, but we couldn't because of the problem with Eunice. And there's the problem with production. I don't want to alarm you, but the people who control this project are very upset. We've got to get it going again. Soon! Chester, I'm scared. I think they killed Eunice just because someone remembered seeing her in Gresham. She was my most reliable soldier. And I think they wouldn't hesitate to—" 

"Madeline! Control yourself. They're not going to kill us. They need us. And as far as production is concerned, there's a good chance the beetles will start making it again. I figured out what the problem was . . . too many of them in too small a space. They may have been stressed by overcrowding, like's what's been shown for rats and other animals. I made larger breeding tanks to reduce their crowding and they seem happier." 

Madeline relaxed a little and the anxiety drained from her face. "Can I tell Pastor Slaggart that everything's going to be all right?" 

"Not yet. I'll know tomorrow. I'd also know when we could deliver the next lot and how big it would be." 

Madeline, reassured by Chester's words, watched him eat for a while, then, when his plate was bare, asked, "Would you like a second helping? And more Coke?" 

Chester watched silently as Madeline scooped out more macaroni then refilled his glass. "This is good," he said, smiling for the first time in several days. 

At 1:25 p.m., the Portland police patrolman assigned to surveil the Immaculate Conception Church, the only church in that area located in a strip mall, called Captain Tabor to report that a man who might be the minister had arrived and was still inside. With that knowledge, and a script worked out for Karla to follow, Tabor drove her to Oregon City. From there she took a taxi to the Immaculate Vision Church. Hopefully, it was the church where Slaggart held court. The man still inside was in fact Slaggart, and he would be open to meeting a wealthy widow wanting to rid her fair city of the scourge of social parasites threatening her income from a string of inner city rentals she depended on for her life of luxurious leisure. 

The front door was unlocked. When Karla entered and looked around, she noticed a partially open door in the rear corner and headed toward it. As she approached the door, a middle age man in khakis and open-neck blue dress shirt, with a neatly trimmed beard and longish blond hair, emerged from what she could see was a large, well-appointed office. He seemed surprised to encounter the woman, especially since he hadn't heard her enter the building. "Oh, hello. I didn't know anyone was here. May I help you?" 

Karla smiled and took a step closer. "I didn't mean to surprise you. My name is Gail Brandon. Are you the minister for this church?" 

"Yes, I am. What can I do for you?" he repeated, taking a step forward and holding out his hand. I'm Juda Slaggart, Pastor of this congregation." 

Karla shook his hand, then said, "I've heard about you, and about your ideas regarding Portland's homeless population. I'd like to learn more about your proposals. We may have certain . . .  objectives . . .  in common. Could you spare a few moments?" 

"By all means. Please, come into my office where we won't be disturbed." 

Slaggart ushered Karla to a couch under a window looking out onto a small clump of woods. He closed the door and sat down in an easy chair facing her. He skipped the getting to know you banter and got right to the point. "Just what are your objectives, Miss Brandon." 

"It's Mrs. . I'm a widow. My husband died unexpectedly a few years ago. After his death, I moved to Portland because of a cousin who lives here. I love this city, although quite frankly, I am very concerned that the growing population of people living on the sidewalks and in doorways is changing the environment for the worse. Downtown is filthy, and business is falling off. All around the country we have a reputation as a magnet for shiftless young people and unemployable social rejects. Portland is thought of as being lenient toward drug users and weirdos, lazy kids begging and stealing, vagrants living off the hard work of law-abiding citizens. And I certainly don't subscribe to the goal of keeping Portland weird if this is what it means." 

When Mrs. Brandon paused her ranting, Slaggart didn't hesitate to jump in. "From your passion, I see that we share a common concern. But the real issue is what to do about it. Wouldn't you agree?" 

"That's why I'm here, Pastor. There's been enough hand-wringing and anxious arguing at all levels. It's time for strong action. The reports I've heard about some of your views are intriguing. I'd like to hear more." 

"Some of my views, as you describe them, are considered by many to be abhorrent, horrific, monstrous. Why might you be so willing to give them consideration? It must be more than just disgust with littered sidewalks and blue-tarp tents tucked under bridges." 

"I'll be honest with you, Pastor. I own rental properties in town and several leases haven't been renewed because of squatters interfering with customer traffic. Shop owners are moving to other parts of the city to get away from needles in the gutters, trash and feces in front of their stores, people sleeping in their doorways, panhandling on every corner and intersection. The fabric of our city is being ripped apart. Somehow, we have to stop the degradation before it's too late." 

"I sense that you really are passionate about this situation, Mrs. Brandon. Perhaps there is a role you can play in my plan to cleanse our city of this infestation." 

"Oh? What do you mean? Exactly what plan are you referring to?" 

Slaggart glanced at his wristwatch. "Unfortunately, we'll have to defer that conversation to another day. I have an appointment in a few minutes and have to leave now. Could we continue this discussion tomorrow? About this same time?" 

Karla wasn't surprised at Slaggart's sudden decision to end their meeting. She assumed that before telling her anything about what he might be doing, if he was in fact doing anything at all, he'd want to check out her story or maybe get permission to confide in her from someone else involved in his activities. 

Karla stood, reached out to shake the pastor's hand, then said, "I certainly wouldn't want to interfere with your commitments, Yes, tomorrow at this time would be fine. I'll see you then." She turned and left before he had a chance to reply. 

A small group of so-called prominent business leaders, three men and a woman, was ensconced in a private alcove off the dining room of one of Portland's most prestigious hotels. A round of martinis had been poured and the waiter had drawn the thick velvet curtains closed as he retreated. "Catherine, you asked why I called this meeting? I'll tell you why. We may have encountered a bump in the road." 

"Charles! Cut the drama. What's the problem? I've got a full day ahead of me and don't have time for your usual playacting. Get to the point!" 

"Catherine. I know how you cherish your billable hours, so I won't keep you from your precious firm very long. The problem is that our project has encountered a technical setback." 

"And what exactly is that problem?" the soft-spoken, smallish man sitting next to Catherine's asked. His cold stare sent shivers down Charles back. 

"Something about unhappy bugs who won't make the poison. That's all I know, Mr. Jimson. It's what Slaggart told me." 

"What the hell is that supposed to mean, Charles?" Catherine blurted out. "We've got bugs working for us? Bugs are making that stuff? What in God's name is going on?" 

"Catherine, please relax. Our scientist guy is working on it. He's smart, he'll fix it. It'll only be a short delay." 

"What if he can't fix it?" Mr. Jimson asked, Then what? We're supposed to just watch complacently as businesses deteriorates? 

Mr. Jimson jumped in. "What's this about bugs"? What's that about? He's killing people with bugs?" 

"No. I mean, yes. I mean, not exactly. They do something he needs them to do, but they stopped doing it—I'm not sure. I'll stay on top of this and update you every day. 

A burly man sitting across from Catherine suddenly slapped his big, manicured hand down hard on the table, rattling the silverware, and said, "We hired you to manage this "project," as you call it. You said there'd be no chance of anything going wrong. You're being paid to make sure it doesn't. Now it seems we got a wrinkle. We don't like wrinkles. You'd better get this one ironed out real soon. Capisce?" 

"I understand, Mr. Conti. I'll look into it right away." 

"Look into it? You need to do more than look into it. You'd need to make it right." 

Conti pushed away from the table, stood, looked around at the others, then left through the velvet curtain. Without a word, the others followed in his wake. 

Charles immediately called Slaggart. 

"What's the latest news? The group is worried and losing patience. They won't tolerate fuckups. And that includes you." 

Slaggart sensed his concern. "Or you, either I presume. I haven't talked to Madeline today. I'll call her now and get back to you. One more thing. A woman who might be able to replace Eunice approached me today. I think she's got money. Said she wants to help—to protect her downtown Portland rental investments. Her name is Gail Brandon. Can you check her out? I'm gonna meet with her again tomorrow afternoon."

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

It was unusual for FBI Special Agent In Charge Hanna Marx to attend a meeting at the North Portland Police Precinct, especially so early in the morning. But these were unusual times. With the mounting numbers of unexplained homeless deaths across the three counties around Portland and demands for answers coming from every direction imaginable, both she and the Portland police were under intense pressure. Captain Tabor had invited her and her team to join him, a couple of other detectives, the Police Chief, and the Portland Police Medical Examiner for a call from Bruce Magnusson. Magnusson was the FBI analytical chemist at Quantico trying to identify what was killing the homeless victims. Agent James and Karla weren't there since they were focusing on the report about a preacher in Oregon City who was rumored to have it in for the homeless, a possible lead that took precedence over this meeting. But Marx and her deputy, Special Agent Ken Campbell, were perfectly capable of representing the agency and  would inform James and Karla about the results of the call. 

The call was on time and Tabor answered on the speaker phone. "Dr. Magnusson?" 

"Yes, it is." 

"Good morning. I'm Tom Tabor, Portland, Oregon, Police. Special Agent In Charge Marx is here for the FBI, as well as others working on this case. Your message said you have important news. Please, fill us in." 

"In one sense, it's good news in that we have a strong suspicion of what's killing these people. But not so good since the toxic agent appears to be closely related to one of the most powerful lethal substances known—batrachotoxin. It's collected from certain frogs and used by Amazonian natives as a blowgun dart poison. It kills instantly, and there's no antidote." 

The room was silent for a moment. All those around the table were shocked by Magnusson's words. Finally, Marx spoke up. "How confidant are you about this?" 

"Greater than ninety-five percent. Sarah Musetti, at Stanford, knows more about these molecules than anyone. She recognized the mass spectroscopy pattern. Two other colleagues I checked with agree with her interpretation—so do I. The trace amounts in the urine samples you sent suggest it’s a modified version of the batrachotoxin parent compound, probably customized for being administered in a specific way. Whoever's making it has to be a highly accomplished organic chemist. They'd have to have sophisticated safety hoods and specialty lab protection, as well. Microgram amounts could be lethal. They'd really have to know what they're doing." 

"Is there any way can get a lead on who that might be?" Marx asked. 

"I'll ask around and see if any of my chemist friends have any thoughts about that," Magnusson said. 

"The sooner the better, like as soon as possible," Marx replied. After she ended the call, she looked at Tabor and said, "Why don't you check local vendors for purchases of lab equipment? The kind of things an operation like this would require." 

The police chief spoke for the first time. "Of course, we're going to do that, Agent Marx. But thanks for the reminder." 

"No offence, Chief. It's just that I'm feeling heat from Washington. Just crossing the Ts, that's all." 

"No offence taken. All right, let's get to work." 

As the police and FBI joint meeting was ending, in another part of Portland Madeline finally connected by phone with Pastor Slaggart, who'd been unreachable for the past hour. "What's so important, Madeline? You shouldn't be calling me on this number." 

" We need to talk soon. Like now." 

"You sound worried. What's wrong? 

"Not on the phone, Pastor." 

"Hmm. All right. Meet me at the church this evening. I hope it's not bad news. You know how I am about that, don't you?" 

"I know," Madeline replied, then ended the call. Her hand shook as she returned the phone to her purse. 

After two transfers, a long wait for a late bus, and a three-mile hike along a back road, Karla and Jamie finally made it to Jamie's old camp, as she had decided to do the evening before. It was midafternoon, and some of the campers were beginning to straggle in after another day's struggle to come up with enough money for food and whatever else they needed to survive the challenges of homelessness in an uncaring society. Karla gave Jamie the bag of chicken breasts she'd bought along the way to and told him to give it to whomever was helping prepare the evening meal for the camp. She held back the gallon of wine she'd bought for later. "Do you see the guy who told you about the minister who badmouths homeless people?" she asked when he returned from his delivery. 

"No. But a lot of the campers haven't come back yet. Sometimes it's late when they do. I'll keep looking for him. Don't worry. I'll tell you when I see him." 

Around eight o'clock, when the chicken stew was mostly gone and Karla's wine was still making the rounds, Jamie nudged Karla. They were sitting around the fire pit with a bunch of the campers, sharing the day's experiences. "That's him. The guy with the dog. His name's Clayman." 

Karla looked to where Jamie indicated and saw a bearded man, probably in his thirties, shaggy hair, dirty jeans and jacket, scuffed boots. He held a mangy mongrel dog on a short leash. He sat near the fire next to an older woman. "Anything left in that pot?" he yelled at the old man who served as cook. 

"There is if you got three dollars," the old man answered. 

The bearded man reached into his pocket, took out a couple of crumpled bills and some change, then spread it out in his palm. Will two-sixty-seven do?" 

"Guess it'll have to if that's all ya got. Bad day today?" 

"Yeah. Slim pickings. Lots of stingy bastards out there." 

The cook took a bowl of stew to the man, gave it to him, then set another bowl on the ground in front of the dog. "He's gotta eat, too," he said, then took the two bills the man held out to him, ignoring the change. 

When the man finished the stew, Karla and Jamie walked over and sat on the bench next to him. Jamie said, "Hey, Clayman, How ya doin'?" 

"Jamie. What you doin' back here? Thought you and your brother left for good." 

"We did. I just came back to see you. This lady here's a friend of mine. She's hoping you can help her find someone she's lookin' for." Jamie nodded at Karla, who was sitting on Clayman's other side. 

Karla stuck out her hand, as if for a formal introduction. "Glad to meet you, Clayman. My name is Grace. I'm looking for a cousin. Her family said someone saw her in a church around here. One where the leader says us homeless types need to be exterminated. Jamie said you might know something about him or his church. I could use your help. I'd appreciate it, too." 

Clayman looked into Karla's eyes, then at her offered hand. "I might," he said as he accepted her handshake. "Depends on what you mean by appreciate." 

"I'll pay you for your help, it that's what you mean. Fair's fair. I've got ten bucks that could be yours if you help me find that pastor." 

"Ten dollars ain't that much." 

"I've got another six, but that's for me and Jamie's bus fare back to town." 

"I can’t do nothin' 'bout that. But it'll take the sixteen for me to tell you what you want to know." 

Karla looked at Jamie. "Whaddya think, Jamie. You up for a long walk?" 

"Whatever. Sounds like we don't have much choice." 

A few miles south of where Karla was questioning Clayman, Pastor Slaggart was scowling ominously at Madeline. They were alone in his office at the church. She was sitting nervously in front of his big desk, cringing at what the so-called clergyman was saying. "If I understand what you just said correctly, we've got two serious problems. First, Chester's frogs, or his little bugs, or whatever the hell they are, aren't cooperating. So, there's not enough toxin for what we need to do. Second, one of your women, the one named Eunice, has gone and got herself identified. And her picture's plastered all over the news. Is that about right, Madeline?" 

"Chester's working hard on getting production back up, Pastor. He'll figure it out soon. You know how smart he is. He just needs a little time." 

"I hope you're right. But there are powerful people who aren't going to like this delay. I'll do what I can to keep them from doing anything drastic, but I can only do so much. Chester has to be back online in a few days. I doubt I can hold them off longer than that." 

"What people are you talking about? You've never mentioned anyone else before." 

"Don't act so naïve, Madeline. Where do you think the funds for Chester's lab and all those supplies come from? Those pricy little frogs? Surely not from Sunday collections at this little church." 

Madeline was unable to hide her shock at what the pastor had had just told her. "Who are these—? 

The pastor cut off Madeline and said, "Don't worry about them. Forget what I said. Now, what about Eunice? We can't risk her being identified then linked to us . . . to our project." 

"I told her to stay out of the public eye. All of them are going to wear disguises when they take the contaminated gloves around to the camps. That'll be Wednesday, so we're not losing much time." 

"That's not good enough," he replied angrily. "Eunice is too much of a risk. If she was careless enough to be seen leaving off one of your contributions in Gresham, she might make that mistake again." 

"Do you want me to drop her from the team? That would be a big loss. She's a good worker and she adds a lot." 

"Leave it in my hands. Don't do or say anything. Understand?" 

Madeline was taken aback by the tone of the pastor's command. "What do you mean by that?" 

"What I mean is . . . find a replacement for Eunice and do it soon. Do you understand what I mean by that, Madeline?" 

"Oh my God. You mean you'd really take her off the team?" 

"Madeline! Enough! Soldiers don't question orders. They follow them." 

Madeline was speechless, afraid to raise further objection to the pastor's order. After a moment, she hesitantly said, "It'll take time to replace her. I can't recruit just anyone." 

"Just do it soon. That would be in your own best interest. One more thing, report Chester's progress to me every day." The pastor then abruptly stood to indicate that the meeting was over. 

Madeline followed him out of his office, through the makeshift sanctuary, and out the front entrance into the dismal dark parking strip. 

Back in his office, he made the call he didn't want to, but knew he had to. 

It was late when Karla and Jamie got back to the North Portland camp. The Uber ride Karla paid for prompted Jamie to ask her how she got that much money. Karla told him that it was none of his business in no uncertain terms, and to not mention it to anyone else. After the camp quieted down for the night, Karla left a message for Captain Tabor under the barrel, then turned in for a full night's sleep. 

The next morning around ten o'clock, Karla, Tabor, and Agent James were in the FBI headquarters conference room they usually met in. Tabor read Karla's note from the night before out loud: 

Oregon City informer said the minister calling for death to homeless people is 

named Slaggart. The church is a few miles south of his camp. That's all he knows. 

"So, what do you want to do about this?" James asked. 

"Pay him a visit. See what I can find out," Karla replied. 

"Just walk in and start asking questions? That's not such a good idea. You gotta do better than that." 

"All right, How about I tell him I hate the homeless, heard about his message, and want to know how I can help him achieve his goal?" 

"You think you could convince him of that? It's a stretch." 

"If there's one thing I've learned from you guys, it's how to tell a believable lie. Yeah, I think I can convince him." 

Tabor refreshed her coffee, then asked, "When?" 

"The sooner the better. Like today. This afternoon." 

The three of them spent the next hour fleshing out a plausible cover story for Karla. Then, after a lunch of cheese pizza and fruit salad, Tabor drove Karla to Oregon City. From there she took a taxi to the Immaculate Vision Church, the only church listed in that specific area. Hopefully, it was the church where a minister named Slaggart held court and who would be open to meeting a wealthy woman determined to rid her fair city of the scourge of social parasites. 

While Tabor and Karla were on their way to Oregon City, the Portland Police Chief was on a phone call with Dr. Sarah Musetti, the Stanford University chemist who'd identified the toxin as a derivative of batrachotoxin. "It's a longshot but maybe worth following up," she was saying. "His name is Rostislov Roskovich. Apparently, he changed his name to Chester Rose after he became a citizen. He worked in the lab of a colleague of mine at Cal Tech. From what my friend told me, he's a brilliant chemist and experienced in natural products chemistry. She fired him after he stole chemicals and equipment from her lab to set up his own home chemistry laboratory. She said he's a bit of a nut job, too. Those are her words, not mine. He's kind of a recluse, never mixed with others in the lab and kept to himself. But what really caught my attention was that his doctoral thesis was on the synthesis of novel batrachotoxin compounds." 

"Does your colleague know where he is now?" 

"No. Seems he disappeared several years ago. Nobody's heard from him since." 

"All right, Dr. Musetti. Thank you for following up with your colleagues. We'll issue a search bulletin for this guy right away. Please, let us know if you get any further information about him, or anyone else who might be worth looking into. 

After the call ended, Chief Samson instructed his administrative assistant to start a country-wide search for Chester Rose, including the name Rostislov Roskovich. Then he called Hanna Marx at the FBI and filled her in on what he'd just learned about the disappeared batrachotoxin chemist. As if the information about Chester Rose hadn't been enough to rev up the wheels of justice, as soon as the chief ended his call with Marx, his assistant rushed into his office with a photo of a woman whose body had been fished out of the Columbia River only an hour earlier. She was a dead-ringer for the woman whom the witness saw entering the Gresham homeless shelter the week before. What next? he wondered as he placed a call to Captain Tabor.

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

It was around ten-thirty Sunday night when Karla finally got back to the North Portland homeless camp where she'd been living after returning from Quantico. After the meeting at FBI headquarters about the woman a witness saw taking a cakebox into the Gresham shelter the previous Friday, Captain Tabor had given her a ride to the camp. He'd dropped her about six blocks away to avoid any possibility of her association with the police, or any stranger at all for that matter. She never forgot the importance of maintaining her cover as a homeless woman who lived close to the edge of the law for a moment. The rumor about her being leader of a gang of juvenile petty thieves provided a reason not to talk to anyone about her activities, especially her source of income. 

As she approached the camp, which was situated in a secluded woody area next to the Willamette River, she noticed a fire still visible at the community firepit. Instead of stopping at her tent, she continued on to discover about two dozen campers around the bonfire. Their attention was focused on two men she'd not seen before. They were in their early twenties and scruffy looking. She saw two backpacks and a duffle bag on the ground near them that she assumed were theirs. 

"Karla!" one of the campers said when he turned to see who had joined the group. "Thank God you're here. You gotta hear what these guys are saying." 

"Hi, Vinnie." Karla replied, then greeted some of the others, including her friend Rosa. She turned down an offer of wine, then, glancing around and addressing no one in particular, asked, "What's going on?" 

Another camper, a woman a little younger than Karla named Gretchen, answered at once. "These two guys came in a little while ago. They're looking for a place to stay. They've been camping in Oregon City at a campsite behind the Mountain View Cemetery The one near Newell Creek. They wanted to get away from there . . . said they were scared. Something about a crazy bible-thumper spouting off about how evil homeless people are . . . how all of them are gonna die." 

Karla was riveted by what Gretchen said, especially since the first wave of killings had been in Oregon City. She stepped over to where the men were standing. "How'd you hear about this preacher? Have you seen him, or heard him?" 

The one who'd been doing all the talking, and who was a few years older than his silent companion, said, "Some of the people in the camp were talking about it. One of the campers has a cousin who goes to a church where the preacher says stuff like that. She told this guy that the preacher says Jesus will come to Portland when all the homeless people are gone." 

"Did the cousin say she thinks the preacher is dangerous? Or maybe responsible for the killings?" Karla asked. 

The man glanced at his companion, then said, "We didn't hear anything like that. But it seems like it might be more than just coincidence that some crazy preacher's saying we should be killed, then a whole lot of us end up dead. Me and my brother didn't want to hang around to find out if he means it or not." 

"Did you tell the police about this?" 

"Hell no. The only thing the cops would do is tear down our camp, burn our stuff, and chase us off. You think they care what happens to us?" 

Karla started to ask another question, but then stopped, not wanting her fellow campers to wonder why she was so interested in this matter. 

After more talk about the killings and how scared Portland's homeless community was, it was decided that the two refugees from Oregon City could stay the night. Gretchen showed them where to set up their tent as the others began heading to their own spots. Karla noted where the newcomers' campsite was and then went to her site. An hour later, when the camp was dark and quiet, she stealthily made her way to the newcomers' tent, woke them, and resumed her questioning. Later, in the darkness of deep night, she slipped a note under the barrel she and Tabor used for conveying messages. 

Early Monday morning, Madeline met her posse of four woman in the Southeast Portland bungalow that housed their production facility. The women were preparing to load the boxes of contaminated gloves into their individual cars. Their plan was to leave the gloves at various homeless camps where supposedly they would be snapped up and worn by the campers, especially since cold weather was forecast for the coming week. "Hold on," she yelled, as Eunice was bringing a box up the stairs from the basement laboratory where the toxin had been sprinkled inside the gloves. "We need to talk before you spread these things around." 

"What's wrong? You seem upset," Eunice said, a look of puzzlement on her face. 

"We've got a problem. That's what's wrong." 

"What's happening?" Sheila asked as she, Terri, and Margaret came up from the basement and joined Madeline and Eunice. 

"A picture of Eunice was on TV this morning. Actually, it was a drawing, but it looks a lot like her. Someone saw her taking the cookies into the Gresham shelter and reported it to the police," Madeline told them. Her strained voice reflected the anger spreading across her face. 

"Oh my god," Terri said. "What are we gonna do?" 

"We're going to be more careful, that's what we're gonna do. Disguises, for each of you. Wigs, hats. dark glasses, makeup, whatever it takes. Make it so nobody could identify you. Okay? And Eunice, you have to stay out of the public unless you're in disguise." 

Eunice responded at once. "Okay. Sure, we can do that? And I'll be careful. But what about today. The gloves are all set to go. Cold weather's coming. It's a great opportunity. This is my project—I don't want it delayed." 

"A day or two won't make that much difference, Eunice. We can't take a risk of you being recognized." 

"But—" 

"No!" Madeline interrupted. "We're not risking everything just so you can keep to your damn schedule. And that's final. Focus on disguises. Our new strike day is Wednesday." 

Eunice was shaken by Madeline's outburst, but tried not to show it. "All right. We'll be ready by Wednesday." Then she turned to her companions and said, "Put the gloves back in the refrigerator. The toxin's more stable in the cold. Then we'll figure out how to change our looks." 

Madeline left as the four women went back to the basement, mumbling their disappointment as they clomped down the stairs. 

Agent James glanced at Karla, sitting across the table from him in an FBI headquarters conference room, and for the third time read the note she'd left under the barrel the night before. Captain Tabor had collected it at dawn, brought it to James, then left to report to his precinct. James laid Karla's note on the table and said, "If this is real, it'd be the most significant lead we've had in this God-awful mess." 

Karla nodded, then said, "Look. the only way to know if there's anything to it is to check it out. I'm the one to do that. I need to get down to that camp in Oregon City and find that preacher. I'll take the guy from there who came to my camp last night. I think his name's Jimmy, or John, something like that. He must know who was talking about the preacher." 

"What will you tell him your reason is for going there . . . and taking him with you? You sure as hell can't tell him the truth about what you're doing. Or who you are." 

"You think I don't know that Agent James? So, we gotta come up with a convincing story. Got any bright ideas, bright boy?" 

James cringed at her rebuff, then got up, grabbed the coffee carafe off the credenza, and refilled their cups. Then he sat back down. "Okay. How 'bout you tell him you heard a rumor that your long-lost homeless sister, or whoever, might be in Oregon City. You wanna' check it out, see if you can find her. But don't know your way around down there. Like, would he go with you to sort of be your guide? Something along those lines?" 

"Hmm. Maybe. I'll think about it. It might work. I'll let you know. But now I gotta get back to camp, grab that guy and get to Oregon City. We'll take the Number 35 bus. After a bunch of transfers, that's how he and his brother got to our camp." 

James stood and said, "You want a ride?" 

"Sure. You can drop me off at the bus stop on Lombard Street, I'll walk the rest of the way." 

While Agent James was driving Karla back to her camp, Dr. Sarah Musetti was in her Stanford University chemistry department lab studying the mass spectrometer spectra her good friend, Bruce Magnusson, had sent from Quantico the night before. "Damn! This is amazing. It's the first time I've seen a fragment pattern so close to the breakdown fragments of batrachotoxin. Whatever Bruce is dealing with must be a closely related analog. There's no doubt about it—and whatever its molecular structure is, my educated guess is that it's extremely toxic. Any compound related to the alkaloid blowgun dart poison used by those tribes in the Colombian Amazon has the potential to be lethal—batrachotoxin is one of the most potent toxic substances in the world, and there's no antidote. If it gets into the blood stream. like it would be from an arrow or dart wound, it would cause death by paralysis of the nervous system and the heart immediately. If taken orally, it would cause death after being absorbed from the GI tract, probably within an hour or so. If it's applied on the skin, it would have to be formulated with some kind of carrier substance to transport it across the dermal layers. Then it would get into blood capillaries, then into the general circulation, then death." 

Her lab assistant, Sandra, who was standing next to her, asked, "You think this is what might be killing those people in Portland? The spectra label says PDX Police." 

"Could be. If it is, they've got a serious situation on their hands. I'll call Bruce. He's not going to like what I have to tell him." 

When Karla got back to her camp it was noon and some of the campers were gathered around the firepit waiting for the stew Rosa made from a big walleye one of the men pulled out of the Columbia at Kelly Point. The guy from Oregon City she'd talked to the night before, Jami was his name, was there and she sat down next to him where he was sitting on one of the makeshift benches near the fire. After she'd said her hellos to a few of the others, she turned to Jami and asked, "How do you like our camp?" 

"It's great. Better than most of the other camps me and Larry been in. Yeah, it's real nice." 

"Think you'd like to stay?" 

"Hell yeah. We'd like that." 

"The thing that makes this place so good is that everybody contributes in some way or other, like for the community meals Rosa fixes. We slip her a few bucks when we can. We help each other when it's needed, as well. Are you and your brother willing to do that?" 

"Sure. We'll do what we can. Larry's got a condition—he gets SSI every month. We collect it at a place downtown. It ain't a lot, but we could put some of that toward the food . . . and for Rosa. Would that be okay?" 

"Yeah, probably. I'll put in a word with Gretchen. She keeps an eye on the camp when most of the rest of are off doing whatever we can do to make a few bucks." They sat in silence for a moment, then Karla added, "But there is a way you could help me right away . . . if you're willing to, that is." 

"How's that," he asked, a worried look creeping across his face. 

"I need to find someone who I heard might be living in a homeless camp in Oregon City. I've never been down there and wouldn't know where to start. Would you go down there with me? See what we can find out?" 

Before Jami could answer, Rosa rang her dinner bell and yelled, "Food's on. First come, first served," her usual announcement to declare that whatever she'd prepared was ready. 

While Karla and her fellow campers were digging into Rosa's fish stew, Chester and Madeline, in their home in rural Clackamas County, were starting a lunch of fresh-made macaroni and cheese containing generous amounts of diced Spam, Chester's favorite meat. "Don't you like it?" Madeline asked as Chester sat slumped in his chair, pushing hunks of cheese-coated Spam around his plate with his fork. 

"Huh? Oh, yeah, sure, it's great." 

"So, what's wrong, then? You seem distracted, or depressed. Is everything all right downstairs?" 

Chester glanced up from his plate and returned Madeline's questioning eyes with a blank stare, then said, "The bugs are sick. They're not reproducing. I'm trying to fix whatever's wrong. But nothing 's working." 

"Bugs? What bugs? What are you talking about?" 

"The beetles that make the toxin, that's what I'm talking about. I need a lot more to produce the amounts of toxin you'll need to increase the kill number." 

"I thought you got the toxin from those little yellow frogs you're always bragging about. Bio-machines, you called them." 

"I did, but they won't do for the amounts we're gonna need now. Anyway, the frogs don't make the toxin. They get it from the beetles. The beetles make it, and the frogs eat the beetles." 

"What? Why doesn't the toxin in the beetles kill the frogs?" 

"The frogs are immune to it. They excrete it through glands on their skin. I collect it off the frogs. It's a laborious process . . . dangerous, as well. It takes more than fifty frogs to harvest just one milligram of the stuff. Then I modify it chemically in different ways so it will resist the high temperatures when baked into cookies, or bread, or whatever. Or so it can be absorbed from the GI tract, or after application to the skin whatever. Eventually we're gonna need hundreds of times more than what I can produce with frogs." 

"Chester, you better get your act together, and fast! There's a lot depending on your little beetles. You gotta figure out what's keeping them from reproducing and fix it. And fix it soon. You wouldn't want Pastor Slaggart to think you're falling down on your job." 

"Think I don't know that? I'm doing the best I can. But it'll take time. This has never been done before, so there's no roadmap to follow. Largescale production of batrachotoxin from Melyridae beetles is like—" 

"Chester! Stop it! Nobody cares about how hard it is. Especially me. Just get it done!" Madeline shrieked, then grabbed her phone and punched in Pastor Slaggart's number.

Undercover Agent: A Helping Hand, Epi Three - By Howard Schneider 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Will the pathologist do that?" Marx asked. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What day was that?" 

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

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

"Clemson, Cora" 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Like everyplace else," Tabor said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What about fecal samples?" 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes. If some of you will help." 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Howard Schneider 

Episode One  

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

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

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

"Damn. All right. I'll take it."  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Like what, exactly?"  

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

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

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

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

Tabor nodded in agreement.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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