Authors: Renee Pawlish
The Lady Who Sang High
A Reed Ferguson Mystery
First Digital Edition published by Llama Press
copyright 2014 by Renée Pawlish
The author gratefully acknowledges all those who helped in the writing of this book, especially: Beth Hecker, Beth Treat, and Janice Horne. If I've forgotten anyone, please accept my apologies.
Follow me on Twitter - @reneepawlish
The Lady Who Sang High
I sat at the Starbucks, coffee aroma thick in the air, the buzz of conversation around me, and waited for her to come in. The Smiths, one of my favorites 80s bands, played in the background as I sipped my caramel macchiato and glanced out the front window. People walked up and down the 16
Street Mall, Denver’s urban heartbeat, enjoying the warmth of an early afternoon in late July. Promptly at one, she walked through the door.
She definitely did not look like a femme fatale
. That was my first thought. She was rather plain, with a round face, long nose and thin mouth, no makeup, straight strawberry blond hair that flowed over her shoulders. No aura of danger about her either.
What might I be getting into?
That was my second thought.
Her eyes roved around the room and alighted on me. She strode purposefully over to my table.
“Reed Ferguson?” Her voice was deep but surprisingly pleasant.
I stood up. “Jodie Lundgren.” I shook her hand.
“I’m so glad you agreed to meet with me,” she said as she pulled out a chair, then slumped down on it. She let out a sigh with the weight of the world in it. “The big detective agencies won’t work with me.”
“I’m really not sure I’m the right person,” I said, taking a sip of my macchiato. And yes, I’m a detective. Or, as Magnum P.I. would say, a private investigator.
She eyed me. “Is it because of where I work?”
That was a lie. Jodie worked at a medical marijuana dispensary, and I admit, my reservation came in part out of assumptions that she would be the stereotypical stoner: scraggly, spaced out, and not able to focus. But, besides looking a bit stressed out, she was nothing like my assumptions.
She held up a hand. “I know what you’re thinking. I work at a weed store, so I must be stoned out of my mind all the time, can’t work a lick, and have no motivation. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a hardworking businesswoman. And believe it or not, I sell it, I don’t smoke it.”
Man, I hoped I wasn’t blushing.
“When I called you the other day,” she continued, “I wanted to keep the marijuana stuff secret. You’d be surprised how complicated working at a weed store can be.”
“I’ll bet people get lit up about it,” I agreed. My pun got a wan smile out of her.
It was true, too. Since Colorado had legalized recreational marijuana use, people were lighting up in record numbers. Legalization had also created a lot of issues around enforcement, crime, taxes and more. Opinions about marijuana use were polarized, and Colorado had become the butt of jokes. Pun intended.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on,” I said.
Jodie had called me a couple of days ago and asked for my help. She’d told me she was worried about some fishy things going on where she worked. Of course, I’d asked her where that was. She’d hemmed and hawed about it, then finally admitted that she worked at Blue Light, a medical marijuana dispensary that had recently begun selling recreational marijuana as well. I’m not a prude, and I’d tried marijuana in the past, but I wasn’t sure I’d wanted this. There were too many unknowns surrounding the legality of marijuana. But she’d persisted, asking that I meet with her to talk, and I’d relented. Like my cinematic hero, Humphrey Bogart, I was a sucker for the damsel in distress. Since I’d given up my office a while back, I agreed to meet her at Starbucks.
“I own Blue Light with my brother, Jude,” she began.
Jude and Jodie, how quaint
, I thought. And she didn’t just work at Blue Light, she was part owner. She hadn’t told me that before.
“Jude put up most of the money, draining his 401k and other investments, but I’ve got a small percentage. He’s the CEO. He runs most of the business side, the accounting, the growing facility and so on. I’m in charge of one of the stores.”
I cocked an eyebrow. “
of the stores?”
“We have four small dispensaries around the metro area, and a warehouse that’s divided into two sections where we grow the plants and have a small lab for research.”
She nodded. “We’re experimenting with different ways of extraction, looking for different potencies. And in case state regulators ban a particular method of extraction, we’ll have other alternatives available.”
“It all sounds very complicated.”
“There’s a lot more to it. It’s not just ‘Wow, I sell weed’.” She said the last part in a mock-stoned voice.
“And business is good?” I asked, knowing the answer.
She nodded. “Well, yes and no. So much has gone into the business that we haven’t made a big profit yet. All the restrictions, and there are a lot, add up to a lot of expenses. Do you know what it costs to grow marijuana? On a large scale?”
“No clue,” I said.
“It’s not cheap.” She ticked items on her fingers. “The seeds, and you have to account for high altitude or they won’t grow. Running the stores and the warehouse. The taxes. But the biggest expense is electricity.”
“I’ve heard that,” I said.
“And we had a chore finding a building. We wanted to rent, but it’s hard to find a place that will rent to you. Once they know you’re growing marijuana, that’s the end of negotiations. They’re afraid of what the growers will do to their property, damaging it with everything needed to grow weed. And I don’t blame them for being wary, but not all of us are irresponsible.”
“Sure,” I said, not sure what my response was supposed to be.
“And the state-of-the-art security systems. We have to have that as well.”
“So why do all that if you’re not making money?”
“We will,” she said definitely. “Now that recreational use is legal, there’s the potential for a huge payout.”
I finished my coffee. “You’ve certainly given me an education, but you haven’t told me why you want to hire a private investigator.”
“Some funny things have been going on lately.”
I perked up. “Like what?”
“Like I said, I run one of the stores, the one that has the growing warehouse in the back. One store may not sound like much, but we’ve had to learn all of the regulations around selling recreational marijuana, and I oversee the warehouse and the growing operations as well. It’s a lot of long hours, and I’m often the last one out at night.” She glanced around nervously, then lowered her voice. “There’ve been some times lately where I feel like someone’s watching me. Or the store.”
“How do you know?”
“Like last week. I was there late, checking on a couple of things in the store, and I swore I saw someone looking through the front window. It’s possible someone was just walking by and looked in because people are curious, so I didn’t think too much of it. But when I left, I saw someone at the corner. He watched me as I walked across the street to my car, and I saw him in my rearview mirror. He sure looked like he was waiting for me to leave.”
“What’d you do?”
“I drove around the block and back by the store, but I didn’t see him.”
“That could all be coincidence,” I said.
“True. But I’ve gotten some weird phone calls, too. They happen late at night, after everyone’s gone. It’ll be just me there, or sometimes Jude is in his office. I’ll answer the phone and they hang up. That’s happened quite a few times lately.”
“You think someone’s trying to steal your crop?”
“No. I mean, it could happen, but the security system should prevent that.” She sat up, put her hands on the table and leaned in. “But there’s something else people would want to steal.”
She lowered her voice. “My brother and I have come up with a new way to grow the plants. This new process is revolutionary.”
“Do you know how marijuana is grown?”
“You put seeds in a pot and water it?”
She snorted, not amused. “Hardly. It takes the right kind of soil and water, not just tap water, because the plants don’t like that. They need a regulated feeding and watering schedule, and the correct temperature and light. And, like I said, a
of electricity. Have you ever been in a big facility where they’re growing a lot of marijuana?”
I shook my head. My worst experience with illicit chemicals occurred more than a dozen years ago in college, when I’d done pot a time or two, but I’d never attempted to grow it, let alone been in a
“If you’re around a big grow facility, it’s like being close to the sun,” she went on. “That kind of energy means a huge electric bill. Some growers have turned to LED lights, but those cost a small fortune. LEDs will cut down on the electric bill, but it takes time to recoup those costs. And it takes time to grow the plants. Marijuana is a fickle plant. Any slight deviation and a crop is ruined. And, depending on the strain you’re trying to grow, it can take months to grow, and then more time to dry the plants and prepare it for sale.”
“I had no idea,” I murmured, then said, “Let me guess. Your new way of growing the plants cuts down on the electricity and expense.”
She glanced around again, as if someone in Starbucks crowd might want to steal her secret.
“Not just less electricity, but a shortened growing time. And the product is awesome,” she whispered. “Growers will be able to produce a lot more of the finest high for a low cost.”
“Isn’t it?” Her glee was clearly evident.
“And this will make you a lot more money.” My detective skills were something to behold.
“Oh yeah. Not only will our profit margins be higher than our competition, but we’ll have that much more inventory and variety that people will want. We could become major suppliers, especially if marijuana is legalized in other states and they let us distribute across state lines.”
“What if the feds step in and shut things down? “
She shrugged. “They’re not interested in that battle right now. And even if that changes, we’ll have made our mint.”
“So you think someone’s trying to steal your new way of growing the plants.”
“Oh yeah,” she said again. “This method is worth millions.”
I held up my hands. “I hate to disappoint you, but I’m not a security specialist.”
“I don’t want to hire you to guard the place or anything like that. I want you to find out who’s after it.”
“Why? Let’s say you’re right, and the people watching the store and the weird phone calls means someone is trying to steal this new process. So I find them, then what? There’s no crime for
to steal it.”
“It’s more complicated than that. Jude and I have kept this new growing method to ourselves, but we have a couple of partners who invested in the business. I don’t trust them. If they get hold of this, they could sell it to a competitor.”
“Why don’t you just sell it?”
“Jude and I discussed that, and we might do that.”
“After you’ve cleaned up.”
“Right. We’ll make money selling product, and then we’ll make a killing selling the growing technique.”
I thought for a moment. “Besides the partners, anyone else who might steal the idea? Staff?”
She nodded. “None of the employees know about the new process, but Jude has a couple of guys who work in the lab testing pieces of the process. He says there’s no way either one has a clue about what the tests are about, but I don’t know. If anyone has figured it out, they could be looking to sell the idea.”
“So I’m supposed to find out if anyone’s trying to steal this new process? That’s it?”
I mulled that over. “If someone is trying to steal it and I start asking around, they’ll know you’re suspicious. That would complicate things.”
“I’ve thought of that. No one can know I’ve hired a detective.”
“Then how will I investigate this?” I asked.
She smiled. “I’ll hire you to work at the store.”
I thought about a lesser-known film noir,
, with Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder. They played U.S. Treasury men who infiltrate a counterfeiting ring. Several times in the movie, their true identities are almost discovered, putting them in grave danger. But that was a movie, right?
“Go undercover? At a pot store?” I asked. Did anyone even say ‘pot’ anymore?
I leaned back. Both would be firsts for me. What could go wrong with that?
A lot, it turned out.