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

Karla followed Madeline through the kitchen of the mass murder gang's Southeast Portland safehouse to the attached garage where Madeline had parked her car. After they got into her old Subaru, Madeline said, "Cover your eyes," and handed Karla a folded dish towel. "You can't see where we're going." 

Realizing Madeline's fragile state of mind, Karla didn't argue. She tied on the towel so her eyes were blocked. "I can't see a thing," Karla said as Madeline backed out of the garage. 

"Keep it that way." 

When Madeline got out to the street, she stopped at the curb and looked behind them: there was a van at the end of the block with ladders on the roof and two men carrying gallon cans to where other ladders leaned against the front of a house; ahead of them, a man with a leaf blower strapped to his back funneled leaves toward the street down a long driveway. Satisfied there was nothing amiss, she started the drive to her own house. 

Thirty-five minutes later, Madeline turned into the driveway of a nondescript, single-level ranch-style house on a wooded lot in rural Clackamas county. She used a remote control to open the garage door. She pulled in then re-closed the door. 

"Can I take this blindfold off?" Karla asked when Madeline switched off the ignition. 

"Yes. And come inside with me. Chester will want his dinner soon. That's when I'll introduce you. He'll be upset that I brought you here—we'll have to be careful not to get him riled up. I'll do the talking. It's important to make him understand that you have money for his project, and that you're part of the group that supports his research. That should keep him calm, at least while he eats. When he's done, you'll have to convince him you're our friend and believe in his work. That's all he cares about—not about the homeless people Pastor Slaggart and the group want to get rid of. He has no idea who they are, and doesn't care, either. He only cares about his precious frogs or toads or whatever they are. His all-important work." 

Karla ripped off the towel and followed Madeline into the house and to the kitchen. Madeline ordered her to sit in one of the four chairs at a square oak table next to a curtained window at the edge of the room. Then she went about preparing a stove-top tuna-mac casserole and putting frozen bread rolls in the oven. She didn't know when Chester would come up for dinner, but knew it better be ready when he did. She was accustomed to her role as his beck-and-call servant and had no intention of giving him reason to think otherwise. 

Karla noted the time: six-seventeen. With Madeline occupied with her cooking, she took her phone out and punched in Agent James' number. But before it connected, Madeline rushed over and ripped the phone out of Karla's hand. "What are you doing?" she screamed. 

"I was just going to cancel a business meeting scheduled for this evening. "They'll wonder where I am." 

"No calls. You won't be here that long. I'll take you where you can call for an Uber after you meet Chester. You can call your businesspeople then." 

Karla didn't want Madeline to suspect anything, so she didn't object. "I'll want that back when I leave," she said firmly when Madeline put the phone in her pocket and returned to her tuna-mac. 

An hour later, Karla and Madeline's quiet conversation was interrupted when they heard the muffled sound of a door slam shut and footfalls coming up the stairs from the basement. 

"That's him," Madeline said with trepidation. "Remember, I'll do the talking." Then she jumped up and went to stand next to her stove. 

A steel door at the other side of the kitchen opened and the creature responsible for production of one of the most lethal substances on earth stepped into the bright light of the room. He closed and locked the door, then looked around. When he noticed a person at the table he didn’t recognize, he squinted and croaked, "Who are you?" 

Karla was momentarily taken back not only by his voice, but by his appearance. The rough rasp of his voice didn't match the waxy pallor of his pock-marked skin. He was tall and thin with a hooked nose dominating a thin-lipped down-turned mouth and dramatically recessed chin that accentuated his triangle-shaped face. His scaly skull showed through sparse, stringy hair receding from a freakishly large forehead. A fetid stench of unwashed body swept toward her like a hot wind. Although his hideousness shocked her momentarily, she recovered quickly—surviving homeless on the streets from the age of fourteen had conditioned her to enough shock to last a lifetime. 

"Chester. We have a visitor—Gail Brandon. She brought money for you. She's part of the group Pastor Slaggart works for. She wanted to meet you in person and thank you for all you've done. We can trust her." 

Seeming to ignore Madeline's rushed introduction, Chester marched directly to the table and sat on down on one of the empty chairs. Ignoring Karla, he looked at Madeline and said, "Did you fix macaroni and cheese?" 

'Yes. With tuna. Do you want it now?" 

"Yes, With Coca Cola. Did you make the rolls? I like rolls with macaroni and cheese." 

"Yes, I know." Madeline rose, went to the oven, and obediently served Chester his dinner as if Karla weren't there, silently attentive to his curt commands—another serving of tuna-mac, a second Coke, more rolls, a second piece of apple pie. 

Finally, after Madeline removed Chester's empty plate, he slid his chair back and looked at the woman sitting silently across from him. "Who are you" Why are you really here?" 

"Chester! She's a friend and has money for you," Madeline said, retaking her place at the table. 

"Shut your mouth. She should have sent it by Slaggart instead of giving it to you, like every other time they sent money. Something's not right." 

"She helped distribute the gloves. There's nothing to worry about." 

Karla started to speak, but Chester slammed his fist on the table and said, "I don't trust you! I think you're here to stop me! Like others have tried before." 

"That's not true!" Karla shouted with enough anger to shock him into silence. "I hate what these dirty squatters are doing to my business interests, and I need you. From what I've heard, you're a creative genius—one of a kind—the only person alive who could do what you're doing. Here," she took the roll of bills from her purse, "take this so you can keep doing it. But I wanna' see it with my own eyes. If what I see is real, and you are making the poison stuff yourself, there'll be plenty more to keep you in business. And to protect my business." 

Chester appeared calmed by Karla's forceful response. "I don't like surprises, that's all." He glanced at Madeline, then back to Karla, then said, " She should have told me she was bringing you here." 

"Don't blame her—it was my idea. I sprung it on her when we were at the safehouse. She didn't want to, but I insisted. So why don't you give me a tour of your labs—show me what you're doing. Then I'll leave and get to the meeting I'm already late for. But I really am interested in your work. I was a premed major in college and am still drawn to science." 

Considering the roll of bills on the table, Karla's convincing defense of her sincerity, and her proclaimed interest in science, Chester reluctantly acquiesced to her request. "Okay. But you'll have to put on a biohazard suit. And I won't show you everything." 

"No problem. I just want to see enough to justify my investment." 

Chester led Karla down the stairs to the labs' anteroom and gave her a Tyvek hooded jumpsuit and a plastic, full-face, vented biohazard mask. After they were suited up, he opened a steel door and led her into brightly lit hallway. She felt a stream of warm air from ceiling vents wash over her and detected a faint musty odor she didn't recognize. 

"What do you want to see?" Chester asked, a hint of hesitancy in his muffled voice. 

Karla wasn't sure how to respond, just as she wasn't sure how she'd be able to put an end to this monster's malevolent efforts. But she knew she had to do something and asked, "How do you make the toxin?" 

Letting pride in his remarkable accomplishments get the better of him, even though against his better judgement, he consented to her request. Actually, although he didn't want to admit it to himself, he was pleased that this person, a person who proclaimed their appreciation of his scientific creativity, was giving him a chance to show off his accomplishment—something he'd rarely been able to do before. "Okay. I'll show you." 

Chester walked a short distance along the hall to a closed door which he unlocked and opened. "This is where it starts." He stepped inside—Karla followed close behind. 

Inside the room, the musty odor she'd detected in the hall was overwhelming, even with the face mask on, making her want to gag. But she didn't, calling up every bit of fortitude she could muster. The first thing she saw was a wall of racks holding dozens of what looked like fish tanks. Looking closer, she saw that they didn't contain water, but seething masses of bright-yellow amphibians: These must be the toads Madeline mentioned, she thought. 

Chester drew her close to one of the tanks. "Beautiful, aren't they," he said softly, as if they were staring in awe at a magnificent painting in the Louvre. 

She wasn't sure how to respond, how to play the role of a wealthy businesswoman determined to kill off enough homeless people to drive away the rest, a woman who professed to have been premed in college and still love science, while at the same time an undercover FBI agent determined to destroy this entire operation, the operation of a brilliant but demented madman. "What do these toads have to do with the toxin?" was all she could come up with. 

Chester was surprised by her question. He thought she would've had a better idea of what the frogs were about. In his view, any premed college student, having taken prerequisite courses in biology, chemistry, and physiology, would be aware of poison derived from secretions of poison dart frogs. Like curare from the bark of the Strychnos plant or digoxin from foxglove—it would be included in standard third-year course material, impossible to have been overlooked. Even more alarming, her calling these smooth-skined frogs toads. As far as he was concerned, anyone who'd taken even the most basic biology course would know the difference between frogs and toads—smooth skin versus bumpy. The suspicion he had at the dinner table returned, stronger this time—something about this woman isn't right. 

"They produce a form of the poison that I collect and convert to a more suitable version," he said, unwilling to divulge more information than that. 

Wanting to get out of this room with its nauseating stench, and detecting a note of suspicion in Chester's reply, she asked, "Where do you do that?" 

"I'll show you," he answered, then led her back to the hallway and relocked the door. He went to another door and unlocked it. "In here." 

When Karla entered Chester's chemistry lab, she was surprised to discover what appeared to be highly sophisticated machines and instruments, long benches with an array of glassware, bottles of liquids and powders, and open-faced, hooded clean-air cabinets along one side of the expansive room. Chester pointed at an especially complicated machine and with undisguised pride said, "That's what I use to isolate the derivative I create from the toxin the frogs make. By the way, they're frogs, not toads, something you'd know if you actually were who you say you are." Then, ignoring the accusation he'd just made, he turned back to the instrument. "It's a large-scale liquid chromatography set up. I collect enough modified toxin in one day to kill  hundreds of people." 

Barely able to comprehend what Chester was saying, but now fully aware that he knew her proclaimed identity was false, Karla's first thought was, I get outta here and let the FBI take this place down. And put this maniac where he belongs. She also acknowledged the thought that at that moment flashed through he mind—why did I stupidly pretend to know anything about science, way too easy for him to challenge. But quickly recovering her grit, she said, "Well, Chester, this impressive facility, and your obvious passion, convinces me you're the real thing. I thank you for allowing me into your laboratories. and I pledge to you that I'll continue to support what you're doing until we've accomplished our goal." Then, to reinforce her commitment of continued funding, she added, "In fact, because of your invaluable contribution, I'll continue funding it as long as you need it." Then she looked at her wristwatch and said, "I hate to leave now, but I do have to get to a business meeting I'm late for." 

When Karla started toward the door, Chester moved quickly to block her way. "I don't know who you are, lady, but you're not going anywhere." Then he yanked open a drawer in the bench he stood next to and grabbed a syringe with a hypodermic needle attached to it. He reached to a shelf behind him for a small glass vial and started to pierce the rubber cap with the needle. But before he could, Karla, who'd been desperately thinking about possible action to take, chose a combination that'd served her well during her years on the street—distraction, then escape. 

In the seconds Chester was taking to prepare the lethal injection he intended for Karla, she snatched a glass-stoppered bottle from a shelf running down the middle of the lab bench and hurled it at him. The stopper fell out when the bottle smashed into his face shield, The clear, fluid contents splashed across its surface, quickly covering the air intake vents. He screamed once, dropped the syringe and vial, then desperately tried to rip the face covering off. He began coughing, then choking violently as he inhaled potent corrosive fumes with every breath. When Karla, who was far enough away to avoid the main plume of acid vapors, glanced at the bottle where it lay on the floor, she understood what was happening—it was labeled "ACID, Concentrated HCl." 

By the time Chester got the shield off he was already close to an agonizing death and unable to prevent Karla from sprinting out the door and escape the growing mist of acrid fumes filling the room. When she got to the ante room, she discarded the protective gear and rushed upstairs, ignoring the slight discomfort in her throat and chest. Entering the kitchen, she came face to face with Madeline holding a pistol in one hand and Karla's phone in the other. "You lied to us," she screeched, waving the phone in the air, then shouted, "What did you do to Chester? I heard him scream." 

Karla Kept her eyes on the gun and calmly said, "Madeline. There's been an accident. Chester was showing me an instrument when it suddenly exploded. Shattered glass tore his suit open and he's covered in blood. Call an ambulance." 

Madeline didn't move, or respond, as if she were paralyzed trying to decide whether or not to believe Karla's words. 

"Now! Madeline. Call now or he'll die!" 

Karla's jarring command made Madeline drop the phone and pistol, then race down the stairs to where she believed Chester needed her. Karla picked up the gun and then called Agent James, although unable to tune out Madeline's rasping cough, then, a moment later, her piercing scream. 

It took three weeks of painstaking work by teams of scientists, hazardous materials experts, and criminal investigators to decontaminate and breakdown Chester's labyrinth of laboratories and animal holding facilities, then catalog and destroy his stock of lethal batrachotoxin analogs. The chemists involved were as extremely impressed with the ingenuity of his molecular manipulations as the investigators were revolted by the utter horror of what he'd done with his unparalleled gift of scientific creativity. Chester was a stark reminder of how genius can be used for good or evil, and how they can determine the fate of civil societies. 

Madeline hadn't yet recovered from the mental shock of discovering Chester dead on the floor of his chemistry lab or the severe lung damage she suffered when she tried to drag his body out of the fume-filled room. She was still in intensive care as well as under twenty-four hour guard by the FBI. As far as the other scoundrels in this horrifying death plot, diligent investigation by law authorities had quickly resulted in the arrest and indictment of Madeline's lady friends who helped distribute the toxin, of Sal Conti's two accomplices, Catherine Angelico and Henry Jimson, and Slaggart's contact person, Charles. No one doubted that the full force of the justice system would be applied in view of their heinous crimes. 

So, it should be no surprise that when Karla and her colleagues gathered in the same old conference room at the Portland FBI headquarters, she was again congratulated for a job well-done. However, after coffee and an assortment of Annie's delicious donuts, that inevitable question still hung in the air. Finally, Hannah Marx, Agent in Charge, broached the subject. "This is the fourth person you've killed, Karla. I hope this isn't becoming a habit. Befitting our tradition, it's preferable to apprehend suspects rather than kill them." 

"Are you suggesting that I should have let that madman inject me with whatever was in that little vial he was holding?" Karla replied icily. "Just so you wouldn't have to go to the trouble of justifying his death in whatever report you have to submit to someone up the chain of command?" 

"You know that's not true. But I am concerned about the reputation you're creating—more self-defense deaths in your first year than any agent in the history of the bureau. That gets people's attention." 

Karla was silent for a moment, then said, "Look, Chief, I'm not happy about killing those four men, but in each case it was either me or them. In a situation like that, I'll chose me every time. So, if you can't take the heat, you'll either have to sack me or develop thicker, fireproof skin. Because as an undercover agent, those are the kinds of situations I get into. Which, by the way, brings me to another issue—my status as temporary agent. I want that changed to full-time, permanent Special Agent. And a raise, to the same amount as any other field agent at my level, unless there's the possibility of hazard pay as well." 

Agent James and Captain Tabor remained silent, waiting for Marx to respond. Finally, Marx stood and went to the closed door. Before opening it, she looked at Karla and said, "I'll see what I can do." Then, with an undisguised expression of admiration on her face, she left, closing the door behind her.

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