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 The overly sweet pastries and donuts usually supplied had been replaced by bagels, cream cheese, and smoked salmon.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