"So that's what pays for all this land and development!" Bob hooted, picking up the impoliteness banner right where I had dropped it and soldiering boldly on. He and I stood amid the co-op's green sea of cannabis and simply boggled.
"Oh, no!" Dora insisted, recoiling from the word 'development' -- and something else. "No. This is not our profit center," she said, sounding more like the Yale grad than like the Earth Mother of a commune.
"This is our mission." Oh. Maybe I spoke too soon on that Earth Mother thing.
"We don't sell our medical cannabis," she insisted. "We give it away."
I looked around, astonished. "But this must be worth ... I mean, if it were on TV it would be at least that week's 'world's biggest ever' bust. You give all this bounty away?"
"Yes. To ease pain, ease nausea, ease muscle spasms and other sufferings. To try to make the world the kind of place we'd like to live in. And for public consciousness-raising."
"Holeee!" What do you say to somebody who's just told you they're giving away millions of dollars worth of anything, just to make the world -- in their view -- a kinder place? I couldn't think of a worthy word.
Given that no noble sentiments immediately bubbled to my lips, I continued the impoliteness campaign, instead. "C'mon then. Who pays for all this now that we know it costs you even more than we realized? Who? Whose daddy has the big bux? Which communista shed his prep-school blazer to play hippie anarchist bum?"
"It's not like that. Really it's not, Claire. Most of these people are dirt-poor idealists. Maybe they came from the families of college professors or book editors. But nobody here is just playing in a parent's big sandbox."
"How, then? Foundation grants? A rich benefactor to causes? What?"
"I shouldn't say. At my level I shouldn't even know. But I've heard it's the latter."
"Names. Give me names." I noted the mention of 'my level' and made a mental note that these folks sounded fairly elitist and hierarchical for members of the equalité, fraternité set.
"Claire, really. Don't you think you're taking this too far? Haven't you ever heard the expression 'MYOB'?"
"Sorry. You're right. It's just that ... well, Dora, c'mon. People like us -- even people like you -- don't get to rub shoulders with this kind of money in most of our lifetimes. Now here it is, being used to fund organic kumquats and medical dope? Honestly, Dora, this is more than private business. This is a story."
She snorted at my writerly instincts, not (in my humble opinion) valuing them anywhere near enough.
While I'd been badgering poor Dora, Bob had wandered off to one side of the greenhouse, where another native-stone and trucked-in-from-exotic-locales "natural" wood counter held packages -- quaintly brown-paper wrapped and ready to go. These were no anonymously bromidic brown-paper wrappers, though. These were old-timey unbleached paper bags with a little cellophane window for viewing the product. They were sealed at the top with a cute sticker in the shape of a cannabis leaf. They had a Ye Olde Fashioned kind of label. And a brand name. And an address.
Goldman's Golden Medicinal Blend. Hardyville, USA. Hardyville.
"You're mad," I gasped. "You're stark, ranting, chained to the wall in a straight-jacket with a Hannibal Lecter-style face-mask on you mad. Even Carty couldn't imagine you could do anything like this. Putting your location on packages of cannabis??? That you ship out into the real world???"
"But Claire ..."
"Mad. Hearing little voices in your head telling you to take the guns to the post office today mad. Voting for Republicans mad. Syphilis eating out the vitals of your brain mad."
"Claire, stop it. It's not that bad. Cannabis is legal here in Hardy County. It's legal where we're sending it to help people. It's plain to every thinking person now that it should be legal everywhere, at least for life-saving, pain-relieving uses. It's okay. The time is right for us. What could possibly go wrong?"
I stared at her in disbelief. Could she have really lived in Hardyville almost as long as I have and not know exactly what could go wrong? I pierced her brain with the sharpness of my incredulity.
Defiantly, she met my gaze. For all of five seconds. Then she turned away.
"Well ... I know," she agreed, weakening under the hypodermic needle of my scorn. "I admit I disagreed with that particular decision. Some of these people are a little too starry-eyed. Just a little. But they have good intentions."
* * *
Meanwhile, back in Mordor-On-the-Potomac ...
In the fetid bowels of A Nameless Federal Agency (ANFA), the Big Man lounged in his Big Chair, perusing a pile of paperwork. Very pleased with his own master detective skills. Oh yes, and mildly grateful to that groveling little underling, the statistical analyst, who had delivered the paperwork. Such people had their uses, he supposed.
Though he couldn't have a big, aromatic cigar in the office, he could still sneak in a bottle of Tullamore Dew. He held up a glass of the golden liquid, roiled it in the light, and was mightily pleased with life.
Through his own wits, the Big Man had discovered 3600 unexploited, and unimproved square miles over which, for the moment, he held a wholly imaginary, yet theoretically kingly power. The potency lay dormant within the pile of paper before him.
Question is, what to do with all that power?
Pass the information upward to his own boss? Not a chance! That move just led to a whole chain of Big Men. He knew those ruthless bastards would take credit for his own discovery. He didn't even give a serious minute's thought to passing the secret of the missing 3600 square miles out west up the food chain to the big sharks.
No, this pile of paperwork was an unequalled bargaining tool. Nobody had held this much bargaining power in Washington since Jefferson's big land buy or Seward's Folly. And look how those moves had turned out. The thing to do was use this power. Very gradually, and very wisely. To shepherd it. To let a little out here and there, when it most benefited him.
The trick was not to try to control the land or its people like a king or lord of old. That was ... well, old hat. Unthinkable, too, when the entire might of the American Empire already surrounded the terrain in question. And besides, it was unnecessary. Control didn't reside in holding a territory in your fist. Not in the modern world of realpolitik. It resided in influence.
Sooner or later everyone in Washington would know about this Hardyville berg and its still-mysterious surroundings. Every agency and directorate would swoop in like vultures over hoof-and-mouth-diseased cows. But for a limited, strategic time, the advantage -- and all the advantages of that advantage -- would be his alone.
True, this nameless little hole in the country wasn't even remotely the size of the Louisiana Purchase or Alaska. But things had changed. Now, land wasn't so free-and-easy plentiful. Mineral wealth could be precious -- especially if the markets could be manipulated -- or regulated -- right. And government ... now there was the big change. Government didn't just give land away anymore, or sell it on the cheap to any member of the riff-raff. It managed it. Forever and ever, with a growing alphabet soup of agencies and regulations. Same with people. Management. That was the key.
Who were these people, these Hardyvillians? Hicks, obviously -- even if somebody in their city government was literate enough to write a grant application. Dust-brained cowboys who probably didn't care about anything but getting drunk and laid on a Saturday night. Their inbred children would be in desperate need of government schooling, no doubt with a heavy dose of special education. These townspeople would be easy pickings except for one thing. One big thing.
All those cretinous cowboys, all those descendents of people too stupid to make it in the oil fields of Oklahoma or the wheat fields of North Dakota, had guns. They always had guns.
Lots and lots and lots of guns.
Which didn't mean Washington couldn't kick the crap out of them. It just meant moving slowly. Surreptitiously. Ease in until it felt like you'd always been there -- and they couldn't live without you. Give them equal but unpredictable doses of raw power and velvet-gloved kindness. Tell them even the rough part of the power is "for their own good."
Then all those guns would stay harmlessly in the closet. Even while the cowboys' lives were put under micromanagement. Just don't target the guns directly.
The Big Man pondered the many, many agencies that could have use for information about 3600 un-taxed, un-regulated, un-aided, un-mined, un-managed, un-schooled, un-plucked, un-dependent miles. The many agencies he could benefit while benefiting himself.
Some agencies gain power by giving. That is, they give away others' money while retaining a fat 2/3 share for themselves. Others gain power by taking. That is, they take homes, land, vehicles, and bank accounts in the various wars-on-this-or-that and pocket the profits without criminal charges or the messiness of trials. Both givers and takers were needed for control. You just had to be wise in introducing the balance.
Some strategists would advise first offering benefits. But people who aren't frightened aren't impressed by the good government can do. They don't need saving until you give them something to be saved from. These city fathers had already emerged from their historic obscurity to cry for help -- for training and equipment for cops. They had the beginnings of fear. Good. Now, goose up the fear, then be the only power around both strong and humanitarian enough to fight the menace de jour.
As John Wayne once said in the days of Vietnam, "If you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow."
He glanced at the map that showed a couple of low-travel state highways generally disappearing into the rocky hills of a basin-and-range area in the northwest Rockies. Funny nobody had ever questioned that before. He looked at the satellite photos, which showed, much more clearly, an odd-looking little town at the intersection of those now-you-see-them-now-you-don't highways. Funniest-looking little town he'd ever seen, come to think of it. But still, it was fundamentally a town like any other in the west, with bars and feed stores on the main street. With outlying ranches, some more prosperous than not.
Needing the iron fist before the velvet glove, it was only natural the Big Man thought of three agencies -- or rather, ambitious heads of agencies who might be willing the help an earnest man on his way to the top. The IRS. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives and What-not. And the Drug Enforcement Administration. Surely, the pickings for all three should be good in this Hardyville place.
But the Big Man reminded himself: Leave guns alone this time. And the IRS ... well, they'd be in business forever. But the monster of the moment -- the one the rubes of Hardyville needed saving from even if they didn't know it yet -- was Evil Drugs. Drugs. Seducing your children and causing people of those races you no longer openly admit are dangerously inferior to run amuck in the streets. Drugs. As exemplefied by snaggle-toothed homicidal villains building meth labs next to your daughter's nursery school. Yes, that was the one to take best advantage of, right here and right now.
And surely out there in that 3600 nearly empty square miles there was some field of ditchweed growing unnoticed on some rancher's roadside. Grab the multi-million dollar ranch of a snobby eccentric. Or a pot grow in the cellar of some illegal Mexican immigrant. The locals would just read the newspaper -- if they were even that literate -- and tell themselves they were sure glad it was only "people like that" who got in trouble. Still, they'd understand on a gut level that trouble can be delivered, to any door, on any night.
Get them good and scared. Then reach out the benevolent helping hand.
Yes, the DEA should be first to get in on the 3600 square miles of fresh pickings. But first, he'd send some scouts of his own in for a confidential look-around.
The Big Man gazed around at his walls full of plaques. He beamed, picturing a far grander office and a bustling, obsequious staff that never contradicted his opinion. Maybe ... Just maybe the idea of a career in the U.S. House of Representatives wasn't aiming high enough. No, not for a man of his talents. Nowhere near high enough.
He picked up the phone. It's too bad, from a writer's point of view, that it was the modern kind, with buttons, instead of an old rotary like a character in a Hitchcock film might dial. Because the appropriate expression here is: wheels began to turn. And wheels within wheels.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time.
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