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 The overly sweet pastries and donuts usually supplied had been replaced by bagels, cream cheese, and smoked salmon.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.