Friday, April 22, 2011

Topeka Gold Rush

  0800 – Topeka Assistance Center
            Buying Friday’s marijuana tax stamps left me twenty thousand five-dollar bills and forty-five pounds lighter. I shifted the Gladstone bag in my hands like a kid tonguing a missing tooth as Marsha Thomas of the Kansas Department of Revenue set her minions to feed the cash bricks through the money counter and play with the UV light. I smiled and we chatted for a few minutes about a web article on a bill to legitimize the sale of marijuana for medical purposes in the Kansas legislature.
            Tax evasion was serious. That’s how they got Capone.
Tax stamps are just good business. When it comes to laundering drug money, the hardest part is getting rid of small bills. Luckily, the Department of Revenue takes cash. I pay my taxes, offload a pile of petty cash, and return greater value to the customer. Each pack of Topeka Golds is a hundred-fifty bucks. For that, you get a premium product: twenty hash cigarettes, each cylinder a gram of high-THC hashish rolled in unbleached hemp paper, with the characteristic golden tip. The packs were a thing of beauty, stiff hash paper with modern commercial labeling and logos, right down to a mock-Surgeon General’s warning; each pack is sealed with a twenty-gram processed cannabis tax stamp. It’s one of the selling points: guaranteed weight, guaranteed purity, no rolling, no hundred and fifty dollar fine if caught.
            Marsha handed me a fat stack of tax stamps and I bid her farewell until next week.
0845 – Clock In
            A group of protestors emptied a barrel of pig shit on the car as I pulled into the Verdetech LLC parking lot. I contemplated the windshield wipers for a moment, then thought better of it and turned off the ignition. I stepped out of the car through the passenger side, where there was slightly less filth to drip on me. To the protestors, I was all smiles and handshakes. I pressed the flesh with the rough hands of farmers and fishermen, and looked into the fresh faces of college freshmen and sophomores, at least some of whom were wearing Washburn University t-shirts and other attire. The signs were less decipherable—something about pollution and Mississippi.
            Five minutes later, I’d made it through the protestors and into the building, the lead woman in tow. Her name was Jenna McCrade, and she was going for her masters in Environmental Science.
            “Your pig shit is killing the ocean.”
            “High-nutrient runoff from the Mississippi River is responsible for a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey. The porcine manure used for fertilizer by your corporate farm contributes to the ongoing ecological devastation. Your experimental fields in particular are the worst commercial farms in the area in terms of nitrogen runoff.”
She clutched a thick file to her chest like a Transylvanian peasant in Dracula’s castle might hold a Bible. “I have numbers.”
            I nodded. “Two questions. One: Do you have a proposed solution? Two: How’d you like a job?”
0900 – Meeting with Mister Hogan
            Bud Hogan was in my office and drinking my whiskey before I’d even had a chance to check my email.
            “There’s ice in the tray, Bud.”
            “I take mine neat.”
            We assumed our positions on either side of the desk. Bud was forty-four, balding, paunchy, and had a face of broken veins. He liked heavy jewelry and bad off-the-rack suits, and owned about a couple hundred acres around Kansas that earned more from government subsidy than legal crops.
            “What can I do for you, Bud?”
            “Well Gid, I’d like to do a bit of business with you.”
            “Not interested.”
            “You ain’t even heard me out yet.”
            “Our philosophies of business are incompatible.” I said. “Verdetech LLC makes a quality product. Your weed is shit and you spice it with meth. You keep one step ahead of a major bust and you take too many chances. Being in the same room with you is a business risk.”
            Hogan sat back, finished his drink and tried to eyeball me. He was a champion eyeballer, but I had pig shit in my eye.
            “You got a nice little operation here, Gid, but you’re small time and overpriced. There’s a world beyond Topeka. People want what I have to sell, and you know it. Damn pot-heads don’t care about tax stamps and THC levels. They ain’t payin’ for your label, and it’s about high damn time you woke up to that fact.”
            Bud always left an empty glass and bad feelings when he left.

1000 – Project Update with R&D
            Yngvi and Yurgi had a lab rat strapped to an electronic cigarette when I got over there, and I waited while they safely stored the critter. Yngvi was the chemist, and Yurgi was the chemical engineer. The R&D space was a former greenhouse, repurposed into a lab because it was well-lit, well-ventilated, and in the very off-chance of explosion the easiest to write-off and rebuild. The only pieces of paper in the room were the boys’ diplomas. I’d replaced their lab notebooks with iPads after an unfortunate visit by the Topeka fire department the previous year.
            Yngvi held up a partially disassembled e-cigarette, displaying a clear plastic lozenge with a slightly green fluid in its guts.
            “Recipe 3. Blend is 25mg/ml THC by volume, with 10% cannabis essence for flavor—the Acapulco Gold hybrids. We used glycerin as a vaporizer base, since we can buy it wholesale from the biodiesel guys upstate.”
            “This is not the final design.” Yurgi explained. “An e-cig is not a mini-bong, the atomizer–heating element–was made for a nicotine compound. There are yet problems with incomplete vaporization and excess residue issues.”
            “We are addressing those.” Yngvi said. “Once we settle on a formula, we’ll need to work out the specs and cost for commercial production, and move beyond animal trials.” The chemist waved a hand at a row of lab rat habitats.
            “Sounds like you guys are on track.” I said. “So tell me: at this point, what else do you need from me?”

1130 – Weekly Consult with Legal
“Bud Hogan paid us a call this morning.” I began, waiting for the kettle to boil. Jase Calhoun, the company’s lawyer on retainer, sat with his eyes half-closed like a West Texas Budai. He said nothing, and I poured the tea and handed him the cup. We were in my office, shoes off. The lawyer had let his hair loose for this consultation, the straight grey-and-white locks falling over his shoulders. His eyes opened.
            “Speaking as your lawyer.” Jase said, staring into his cuppa. “I would advise against having any dealings with Mr. Hogan. Aside from his popular reputation, he has seen far too much attention from law enforcement and other authorities in the last few years.”
            Jase sipped his tea, old laugh-lines formed into a bitter scowl.
            “As your friend and your lawyer, the best way to avoid Bud Hogan’s intentions is to give him something else to think about. All warfare is based on deception.”
            “If your opponent is temperamental, irritate him.” I responded. “You know, Bud doesn’t think much of buying tax stamps.”
            The lawyer’s laugh lines bunched at the corners of his mouth.
            “Friday, there’s a Lunch for Lawyers social networking affair downtown. I expect the county tax collector and the district attorney to be there. If you can get me anything solid by then, it might help move things along.”
            “I’m taking Charles to lunch in a few minutes.”
            “Ah.” Jase said.
            We sat quietly for the next few minutes and finished our tea.

1200 – Lunch with Charles
            We went out for quesadillas. My car was still covered in pig shit, so Charles drove. I talked. When I was done talking, we’d arrived at a little hole-in-the-wall that served Mexican Bohemia beer. We took a table on the sidewalk and Charles ordered.
            I don’t tell my people how to do their job. Charles, as our head of security, is a creative professional with years of experience in his craft. The law is something he works through and around to get the necessary result. As we work our way from the salsa through the guacamole, I know he’s making plans. At the next table over, a couple surreptitiously light up a couple of Topeka Golds. We finished up with cajeta and headed back to the office.
            “How far you want me to take this?” Charles asked.
            “Any legal option.” I picked my words. “You’ve got twenty thousand dollars cash back at the office. Let me know when you need more.”
            Charles digested that.
            “I’ve got a file on him. Three inches thick. Know your competition and all.”
            “What have you learned?” I said.
            “Bud Hogan is a man without respect. Not for the law, not for man or money or power. Corn’s got seed rot, so he can’t launder the drug money. Puts him in a bad way for clean cash: mortgages and liens on all his properties, but the banks don’t want to foreclose in this economy.”
            “Back taxes?”
            Charles pulled into his parking space. “I reckon so.”

1300 – Meeting with Shawnee County School Board
            “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming. I’ll be brief and to the point: Verdetech LLC would like to buy you out.” A finger-wiggle flipped the PowerPoint to the next slide, and I continued. “This is a ten acre lot, less than a hundred yards from this building. We are offering to purchase the property from the county.”
“No offense, Mr. Welles, but I don’t see how that is possible. The area has already been designated for the construction of the new agricultural high school.” said Blake.
Blake Parson was the head of the Shawnee County School Board, an ex-marine who found managing nine school districts more dangerous to his hairline than any military command.
“I’m aware of that, and to be honest that’s part of the reason we’re making the offer. Some of the crop research we engage in is, as you know, experimental—including some licensed research in non-scheduled plants with psychotropic properties, including salvia divinorum—and our paper milling operations produce a certain amount of air pollution. Obviously, it is not ideal to have those operations in close proximity to students. Verdetech is asking to purchase the land from the county at market value—”
A number went up on screen.
“—in addition, we would like to make a contribution to the high school building fund, to ensure that the students have the best equipment and facilities available.”
Blake looked at the number on screen. “What kind of contribution?”
“We’ll match the county, dollar for dollar.”

1437 – Unscheduled Interruption
            Charles walked into my office and shut the door. Rosa and I stopped talking.
“There’s been a fire at the Half Day Creek house.” Charles said. “Melanie and John are okay, but the police arrested them when the fire department came to manage the blaze.”
Melanie and John were contractors, owners of the Farm Futures greenhouse. Verdetech LLC farmed out small research projects to them. Most of their work involved commercializing lesser cereal grains, but they also cultivated new cannabis strains on the QT.
            I let go a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.
“Rosa, please call Jase. Charles, I want you down there and post bail. Use the company credit card.” I asked while Rosa hit the speed dial on my phone.
“Did the fire reach the house?” I asked.
            “No, but a friend on the force said the cops are searching it.”
“Okay. Take a company car and a couple laptops, and take them shopping. Fresh set of clothes, burner phones, dinner, set them up at a hotel, and let them know they’re on full per diem. Leave them the car with them, take a taxi back.”
“Boss.” Charles said. “You know what this looks like?”
“I now who it looks like. Bud Hogan.”
Rosa hung up the phone, then handed Charles a company credit card from her wallet. Charles nodded to her and left.
            “Gideon” Rosa said. “Which account do you want to charge this to?”
            “Overhead.” I said. “Busts are the cost of doing business.”

1530 – Owners Meeting
            Rosa, Tobias and I kicked everyone else out of the executive conference room. Maxi was out on location, but was going to phone it in using the voice over IP system. We had a set protocol for talking about things over any communication line. I had to couch everything in code words and euphemisms, disguised as meaningless, buzzword-laden business babble.
            “…no reason to believe that this incident poses a significant threat to our primary revenue stream.” I finished.
            “From a quality assurance perspective, we should probably institute a general procedure to be instituted immediately if this sort of thing happens again.” Tobias added. “We’re a growing company, and we can’t keep thinking like a small company and doing things just because that’s how we’ve done them in the past.”
            “I don’t like waiting for the competition to take us out. I don’t know about the rest of you, but this whole incident suggests a serious security risk.” she said. “We need to deal with it in a more forceful and permanent manner.”
            Maxi spoke up, the ghostly voice from the speakerphone.
            “When we started this company, it was with the understanding we were going to approach this as a proper business—pay our taxes, provide the best product, market the shit out of it, reinvest profits. We wanted to avoid unscrupulous and unprofessional practices, and set limits to what we would and would not do. That hasn’t changed. I call a vote. All in favor of Gideon’s suggested resolution?”

2000 – Clock Out/Night Deposit
            The building died by degrees, as people finished their shifts or headed out early. I clocked out with Tobias, another forty-five pounds of green bricks in the Gladstone at my side. He locked the building behind us, and the night security walked us to our vehicles. A late afternoon rain had washed off most of the pigshit, except for the parts caked and dried in the gutters of my windshield. The smell, I suspected, would last longer.
            The car was almost on auto-pilot, keeping under the speed limit and stopping at every red octagon and crosswalk on the way. Trucks and minivans zoomed passed me as I went five miles under the speed limit on city streets to the bank, and parked under a streetlight. I dropped my load at the night deposit, one more for the Friday night pile of week’s receipts for the local businesses. Then I drove to the next one.
            Too much cash for any one bank. To allay suspicion, we use a dozen banks, rotating on a schedule. Less than ten thousand dollars each deposit, otherwise the banks would alert the Feds. It’s a necessary chore to get the cash to a place where we can use it. We have other ways, but the money piles up if we don’t make our deposits. Too much cash on hand raises the wrong kind of awkward questions. I was on the last drop-off of the night when a man walked out of the darkness with a gun.

2030 – Meeting with Mr. Hogan (II)
            Bud Hogan had a Topeka Gold hanging off his lip, and a Maadi-Griffon .50 BMG held with both hands. The Maadi-Griffon was a cannon; the product of paramilitary fetishism. A one-shot high-caliber elephant killer. Bud couldn’t have been more villainous if he’d shown up with a Luger and a Charlie Chaplin under his nose.
            I raised my hands. I doubted he wanted to kill me.
            “You’re a smart boy, Gid.” Hogan said. “Business-like. If you weren’t such a fuckin’ college-educated snob with your MBA, we might not have to talk under these circumstances.”
            I let the silence grow a bit after he finished.
            “Strategic partnership. Your product, my distribution. I got buyers from out of state, real interested. There’ll be good money in it for the both of us. Five years from now, weed’ll be legal, and we can go legit.”
            “No.” I said, keeping my eyes level with his.
            “Son, I ain’t giving you a choice.” Bud said.
            I threw the Gladstone at him and ran.
            There was a boom behind me, and a scream. Bud Hogan was lying on the ground, tears flowing, hands limp and useless at the wrists, probably broken from the recoil. My Gladstone bag looked like a popped balloon; the left cash in it was confetti on the sidewalk. The bullet was embedded in the frame of the night deposit box. I looked up at the security camera; reached for my cellphone.
            “Don’t worry Bud.” I said, dialing 911. “Help is on the way.”



  1. Hey Bobby, I just found this through the stuff you've been posting on yog-sothoth and thought I should comment on just how much I enjoyed it.

    Frankly I'm disgusted at how the drivel I spew onto the screen compares to your prose.

    I'm really glad to see you moving on from all of last year's bull-shit and am looking forward to seeing your name in print much more in the future.