By Howard Schneider
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.