When Karla entered the FBI headquarters sixth-floor conference room she'd been in many times, Chief Hannah Marx, her field agent Darrel James, and Captain Tom Tabor of the Portland Police Bureau, stood and clapped their hands.
"Sorry to be late," she said. Her hospital discharge had been delayed by half an hour. "Some Portland Police detective wanted to cross the T's and dot the I's of his investigation into Sal Conti's death." Three days earlier, Karla had killed Conti during an encounter that through the eyes of any unbiased witness could be described as nothing other than justified self-defense. Fortunately this view was shared by the Columbia County District Attorney as well.
"Must have been Lieutenant Carson—he would do something like that," Tabor said, as if defending Karla.
"Welcome back, Agent Hammer," Marx said, ignoring Tabor's comment and waving away Karla's apology. She motioned Karla to take a seat and James set a cup of freshly poured coffee in front of her. Tabor took her walking stick and leaned it in a corner, then placed a plate of donuts next to her coffee, the glazed ones from Annie's Donut Shop on Sandy Boulevard.
Karla glanced at the donuts, then smiled warmly at Tabor and said, "Thank you. They're my favorites."
"I know," he replied, returning her smile.
"How are you feeling?" Marx asked after Karla sampled her coffee. "You look a bit battered."
Karla touched the bandage on her cheek, then said, "Yeah, Conti got in a couple of lucky punches. He was a big guy—and did his best to kill me. But I was luckier, a handful of dirt saved my life. I didn't mean to kill him. Apparently, he died instantly when he fell forward after I pulled his feet from under him and smashed his forehead on the edge of the stepstone. The medical examiner said the front of his head was pulverized. But the key question now is, did he know I was FBI? And if he did, how? If we're gonna find the producer of the poison, we need to know how I was compromised and who else in the gang knows. I've been racking my brain lying in that hospital bed for the last three days but haven't been able to figure that out."
"We picked up Slaggart an hour after you called from the sawmill," James said, ignoring the fact that Conti's neck was also broken. "Thank God you found Conti's landline since there’s no cell phone service in those hills. When Slaggart showed up that morning at Pioneer Square to pick you up in a car instead of meeting you on foot, like we assumed he would, we weren't able to follow you. I assure you, we won't make that mistake again," he added sheepishly.
"No. I'm sure you won't, Special Agent James. Another screwup like that in your personnel record and you'll be looking for another job," Marx said stiffly.
After a moment of silence, Captain Tabor said, "Enough said. What have you learned from Slaggart?"
James didn't hesitate a moment. "We don't think Slaggart suspected Karla. Our guess is that Conti figured it out on his own. He was heavily involved in Portland commercial real estate and may have discovered that our internet postings about Karla's properties were fake. Irrespective of that, Slaggart doesn't like the prison time he's facing as an accomplice to mass murder and will cooperate to improve his chances for a lighter sentence. The problem is that this gang has maintained absolute separation of its members. Slaggart claims he's only had in-person contact with a woman named Madeline and her lady friends who distribute the toxin, and has only had phone contact with a man he knows only as Charles, the liaison with whoever provides the money to fund the operation. Slaggart says it's Madeline who's in contact with whoever's producing the stuff and has no idea who that is, or where."
"Okay then. It's obvious what we need to do," Karla blurted out. "I have to get closer to Madeline and gain her total trust. That's the only way we'll get to the producer. Since I already have a relationship with her as one of her distribution helpers, I've proven myself. So, all I have to do is deepen that relationship and see where it leads. Daryl, have Slaggart set up a meeting between me and Madeline. If he wants credit for cooperating, he'll make it happen. But as an insurance policy, let him know what I did to Conti—and that I wouldn't look on him favorably if he were to inform Madeline of our real intention."
"Karla!" Marx said. "We don’t threaten witnesses or indited suspects. That's not how the FBI works."
Without responding, Karla took a swig of coffee, then a bite of her donut. After chewing a while, she took another bite, then shook off flakes of glaze that had fallen onto the sleeve of her flannel shirt. Finally, she looked Marx in the eyes and asked, "Do you want these killings stopped?"
"That's an impertinent question, Karla. Bordering on insubordination."
"Right, boss. Whatever you say." Then standing and turning to Agent James, "Get me that meeting with Madeline. And make sure that son-of-a-bitch Slaggart doesn't screw this up. Let me know as soon as you get it done. I'll be at my camp." She stepped over to the corner of the room and grabbed her walking stick, then turned to Captain Tabor: "Tom, would you give me a ride, please?"
"I'd be happy to."
Karla and Tabor left the room without further comment.
After Captain Tabor had treated Karla to a cheeseburger at a Burgerville, she was resting in her tent when her phone buzzed. It was Agent James.
"Slaggart came through—you've got a meeting with Madeline at three o'clock this afternoon. I told her you had another contribution for the project but wanted to give it to her personally. That you prefer dealing her rather than a go-between, like Slaggart."
"At the Southeast Portland house where they stored the toxin for the last attack. I can drive you—I’ll wait nearby in case you need backup."
Karla thought for a moment. "No. I'll do Uber, like when I went there before. There's no point in taking a chance you'd be spotted. This meetup has to be perfect. It's our best way of getting to the producer and we can't screw it up."
It was three on the dot when Karla got out of the car, told the driver she might need him later, and would call if she did. When she rang to bell at the front door, Madeline opened it immediately.
"Gail! Come in. It's good to see you. There's fresh coffee. Would you like a cup?"
Karla sensed Madeline's anxious mood as she stepped into the living room. "It's nice to see you again as well. It's been a while, hasn't it? Coffee would be great, thank you."
"Make yourself at home. I'll get the coffee. How do you take it?"
Karla watched Madeline scurry out of the room without waiting for an answer to her question, then sat on the sofa and gathered her thoughts. She was thrown off by Madeline's apparent nervousness, wondering if she suspected something wasn't right about the suddenness of her visit.
Madeline returned a moment later carrying a tray with a pot of coffee, two cups, and sugar and cream. She set it on the low table in front of the sofa. "Help yourself," she said, then sat in the easy chair across from Karla, perching on the front edge of the cushion and looking around the room to avoid Karla's questioning look.
After a sip of coffee, Karla leaned forward and said, "Madeline, is something wrong? Are you upset by my visit?"
"Well, it's . . . it's just that it's so unusual. It's not by the protocol Pastor Slaggart always makes us follow. We, you and me, I mean, should only meet when the pastor is present, or for a distribution job." She wrung her hands nervously. " I don't understand why you're bringing the money instead of him. It's never been like this before. We don't like it when things aren't like they're supposed to be."
Karla picked up on Madeline's use of the word we instead of I." "Would it help if I meet your partner and explain why I'm here in person, rather than Pastor Slaggart? There's a perfectly good reason, and I'm sure both of you, or all of you if that's the case, would be satisfied. I want to eliminate any doubts about my motives, which, I promise are sincere. I'm dedicated to this project but just want to see for myself that it is adequately funded. After all, it's my own money that I'm contributing and have a right to see that it's used appropriately, don't you think?"
Madeline was caught off guard by Karla's passion. "I, I, I'm not sure what to do. I don't doubt you, certainly not, but it's not like we always do things. Chester—I mean—oh my God. I didn't mean to say that name. Please don't tell anyone I did. Oh my God, what am I gonna do now?"
"Madeline, it's okay. Anything you tell me is in strict confidence. Now, who is Chester? And why can't I meet him?"
"I'm not allowed to talk about him. He's a secret. I'd be in trouble if I did. You won't say anything, will you?"
"Of course not, Madeline. You're my friend, and friends don't betray each other, do they?
"No. I guess not. But—"
"Is Chester your friend?"
Madeline was quiet for a moment, then said, "No. He's my husband. But I don't think he's my friend’ I don't have any friends."
"Does he hurt you? Are you afraid of him?"
"He doesn't hurt me . . . but I am afraid of him. He has a bad temper. But it's okay if I do what he says . . . and if I stay out of the basement."
"Yes. That's where his laboratory is. And the bugs and toads, or frogs, or whatever they are."
"Bugs? And toads?"
"He has lots of them. Yellow ones. I saw them once when I tried to find him. He got really mad and I knocked over one of their tanks and some escaped, but he got them back. He was really angry. I never went back down there."
Karla could barely believe what she was hearing, how forthcoming Madeline was with such vital information. "Madeline, even though Chester may not always treat you right, he must appreciate what you do for the project. He produces the toxin but depends on you for its distribution. Doesn’t he appreciate you for that?"
Madeline thought for a moment. "I don't know. Maybe. He doesn't talk much about things like that. Mostly, he wants to know about the money so he can keep doing whatever he does down there. Whatever it is, it costs a lot. It's what he lives for—what he tells me all the time is advancing the frontier of biochemical innovation, whatever that means. I'm always having to ask the pastor for more money. But as long as Chester keeps making that toxin, and we keep killing those vermin infecting our city, the money keeps coming in, and that keeps Chester happy. And when he's happy, he leaves me alone. That's all I want. Just to be left alone."
Karla sat back against the sofa cushion, and Madeline did the same. She reached for her mug and took a swallow. Then her eyes met Karla's. "Do you think I'm a bad person for killing all those people?"
Karla was torn between the revelation of Madeline's dismal situation—and the warped state of her mind—and her own need to find and confront Chester, clearly the madman who was producing the toxin. He had to be stopped, and she was the only one providing an opportunity to do that. "No, Madeline, I don't think you're a bad person. You're only doing what has to be done. But what I do think is that you need a friend to help you deal with the challenges you face. Let me be that friend. Take me to Chester so I can give him this twenty-five-thousand dollars." She took a fat roll of crisp bills from her purse and held it out for Madeline to see. "I’ll tell him how important you are—to him and to the project. What a loyal wife you are, and what a valuable soldier you are in this war. That without you, there would be no project. And if there's no project, there'd be no money to support his biochemical innovation."
Madeline abruptly got up from the chair and said, "Okay. But I need to take care of these things first, then we’ll go." She picked up Karla's mug, put it and everything else on the tray, then took it to the kitchen. Karla remained sitting and listened to the sounds of running water and the light clatter of cups being washed, dried, and put away. She looked up when Madeline returned and calmly watched as she retrieved her jacket from the hall closet and her purse from the end table next to the easy chair. "Are you ready?" Madeline asked after she opened the front door.
Karla stifled a smile and replied, "Yes. Let's go."