It’s a well-known fact that some of the Reach for Recovery cancer support group survivors Hannah Ives works with take marijuana. Recreational use of the drug may be illegal, but a few, like Maryland State Senator Claire Thompson, are prescribed it on medical grounds.
Claire has co-sponsored a Cannabis Legalisation Bill and wants Hannah to be part of a fact-finding task force that testifies before the Maryland State Senate.
Before long, Hannah is in Denver, Colorado – the Mile High City – staying at a B&B with a group of pot pilgrims and medical refugees – some of whom, like her, are on a mission for information. But when one of the group is found dead, and a closer inspection of the body reveals they may not be who they seem, Hannah is plunged into a dangerous cocktail of drugs and death.
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Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
William Shakespeare, 'Sonnet 76'.
I had a wet rag in one hand and a wizened green pepper in the other, when I realized someone was calling my name.
'I can't hear you,' I called out, addressing a carton of pulp-free orange juice. 'My head's in the fridge.'
Paul tapped me lightly on the shoulder. 'What are you doing?'
I eased my head past the vegetable crisper drawer and turned, hoping that after thirty-some years of marriage he'd be able to read the 'duh' look on my face. 'Isn't it obvious?' I indicated a plastic-wrapped block of ... something. Could have been cheese in a former life – organic butter, maybe. 'I'm trying to decide whether to throw that out. Could be a cure for Alzheimer's.' I picked up the baggie between thumb and forefinger and handed it over. 'You decide.'
Paul scrunched up his nose adorably. 'No, thank you, Hannah.' He pitched the mystery object into the trash can I'd set out to the right of the refrigerator in order to make my job easier. 'Don't you have your breast cancer support group today?'
I swiped an errant strand of hair out of my eyes with the back of my hand. 'Yes.' Suddenly, it occurred to me why he might be asking. 'Golly,' I said. 'What time is it?'
'If you hurry, you'll just make it.'
'Here,' I said, handing him the soapy rag. 'You take the helm.'
I struggled to my feet. 'You can start with this spaghetti you insisted we save, when was it? Two weeks ago Monday?'
'I'll have it for lunch.'
I surrendered a Ziploc container, its contents flocked with a greenish-black mold. 'Go for it, Professor.'
He made a face. 'I see what you mean.' He tossed the spaghetti, container and all, into the trash.
My deep, puritanical New England roots recoiled. I rescued the container, ripped off the lid, tapped the revolting contents into the garbage disposal and placed the plastic tub, now empty, into my husband's hands. 'That's why God invented dishwashing liquid,' I said.
Leaving Paul to ponder the medicinal potential of the disgusting green map on the inside of the blue plastic lid, I raced for the shower.
Seven minutes later, wearing a red-and-white striped, long-sleeved T-shirt over a pair of white jeans, I tore down the stairs, scooped up my handbag and car keys from the table in the entrance hall, then paused at the door. 'Where did you leave the car?' I yelled.
Parking on Prince George Street in Annapolis, where we live, is at a premium; it's a rare home in the three-block section of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century houses that has off-street parking. Paul had made a run out to Home Depot the previous evening – a bathroom faucet needed replacing – so I hoped I wouldn't have to walk all the way to the downtown waterfront before locating the family Volvo. Fortunately, he'd managed to squeeze the vehicle into a tight spot opposite the historic William Paca House, just a short trot away from our front door.
Sometimes the traffic gods are with you, sometimes they're not. By some miracle, I made it to the Anne Arundel Medical Center campus on Jennifer Road in less than ten minutes, hitting all the traffic lights on Bestgate Road green.
Reach for Recovery, the cancer support group that I facilitated on a rotating basis with several other long-term cancer survivors, met every Tuesday afternoon in the Belcher Pavilion, one of eight named pavilions in the sprawling hospital complex.
The Doordan Institute occupied the entire seventh floor of the Belcher Pavilion, offering an outdoor terrace with a commanding view of the Annapolis skyline. In addition to a state-of-the-art auditorium that could seat up to 400 people, there were five smaller classrooms. I was headed for one of them.
I knew from experience that Parking Garage E in the hospital complex would be so full that I'd probably have to wind my way up to the top open-air deck before finding a spot, so I pulled instead into the garage adjacent to the Sajak Pavilion. I eased the Volvo into a corner space on the second deck and took the stairs down to the sidewalk at street level.
As I rounded a corner between the two pavilions, a familiar odor – a heady combination (at least to my mind) of hops, fresh-cut grass and burning palm fronds – stopped me cold.
Maryland State Senator Claire Thompson leaned back against the dense hedgerow that separated the hospital campus from the Annapolis Plaza mall. In spite of the warm weather, she was dressed in blue jeans and an oversized hoodie that read, Go Navy, Beat Army. The hood was up, covering her short-cropped pale blonde hair.
Claire didn't reply at once. As I stood there, transfixed, she took a deep drag, inhaled, held it for a long five seconds, then exhaled a thin stream of smoke into the spring air. She opened her eyes. 'Hello, Hannah.' Her eyes drifted from me to the smoke, following it as it dissipated, mingling with the pollen from a nearby row of Bradford pear trees, their branches heavy with white blossoms.
'Do you realize how many laws you're breaking?' I scolded. 'To begin with, this is a smoke-free campus.'
If I could detect the distinctive smell of marijuana, I knew others could, too. From the stump of the joint she held between her thumb and forefinger, I figured she'd been standing in that spot for a while. I expected the DEA to come whoop-whoop-whooping around the corner at any minute. Marijuana was still a Schedule 1 drug, according to Federal law.
Claire shrugged. 'I have a prescription.'
I knew that Claire – a breast cancer survivor – had been prescribed marijuana to help mitigate the side effects of her chemotherapy. 'How's the nausea?' I asked, remembering what she'd told the group at the previous week's Reach for Recovery session. Claire took another drag, exhaled and managed a wan smile. 'Better,' she said. She stubbed the joint out on the bottom of her jogging shoe and tucked the butt into her pocket. 'I've got the munchies, though.'
'Isn't that the whole point?' I said, thinking back to my own chemo experience more than a decade earlier. The nausea medication the doctor prescribed had turned me into a drooling zombie, so I'd made an executive decision. I'd quit taking it. After that, I'd spent several weeks hugging bowls of chicken noodle soup and praying for death. I'd been so sick, in fact, I'd spent most days on the sofa in front of the television, and watched all of Killer Klowns from Outer Space because I'd been too ill to crawl out from under the afghan and locate the remote.
I'd also lost twelve pounds.
'You gotta eat,' I told Claire, remembering how weak and exhausted I had felt. 'As diets go, chemo is way low on the totem pole.'
'We're gonna be late,' Claire said, ignoring my comment.
'So, what do you do?' I asked, trying to keep the discussion going as we headed into the building. 'You can't just sashay down to CVS and pick up a prescription.'
'Actually, I get it in DC. Maryland's medical marijuana dispensaries don't open until July.' She paused. 'If then. It's been a bumpy road.'
'Why?' I asked as we passed through the automatic glass doors and walked into the lobby. 'I haven't been following the news closely, but I thought medical marijuana was legalized here in 2015.'
We reached the bank of elevators and Claire punched the up button. 'It was, but since then we've been wrestling with the grow licenses – how many, who'll get them, yadda yadda yadda. What a cluster fuck! I thought we had it sorted,' she said, stepping into the elevator ahead of me. 'And then we got sued because somebody forgot to factor in racial diversity among the permit holders.' The way she emphasized the word 'somebody,' I knew she didn't hold herself to blame for the oversight. 'We were even forced to hire a diversity consultant.' She rolled her eyes.
As the elevator doors slid shut, she said, 'If you have a few minutes afterward, I'd like to talk to you about something. Coffee in the cafeteria?' she asked. 'My treat.'
'Sure,' I said, genuinely curious about what the topic of conversation might be. I opened my mouth to ask for details, but the elevator doors opened on the second floor and three women flounced in, two of them clutching bags from the hospital's Bayside gift shop.
'Oh, hello, Hannah,' one of the shoppers chirped.
It was hard to be depressed around Heather, our yoga instructor, an energetic bundle of radiant good health, wrapped up in pink-and-black Spandex exercise duds. She wore her infectious, almost pathological cheerfulness like a badge. Somewhere in the attic was her portrait as an ax murderer.
We started each Reach for Recovery session with a fifteen-minute yoga routine, after which Heather would flip her blonde ponytail and disappear with a wave and a chirpy, 'See you next week, ladies.' It invariably evoked a 'So what am I? Chopped liver?' comment from Bob, the only gentleman in our group. Men can get breast cancer, too.
Following Heather's workout and a round-robin of updates – Bob's blood work was totally clean (yay!), Jeannie's kids were taking her on a Caribbean cruise (I wish!), and the sonofabitch who Brendalee married, a Lutheran minister who should know better, was cheating on her with the parish secretary (divorce his sorry ass!) – we segued into a discussion of an upcoming fashion show sponsored by the Reingold-Yasinski Foundation in cooperation with MICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art. 'They're looking for a couple of dozen survivors as models,' I informed the group. 'If you're accepted, they'll pair you off with a promising young fashion designer.'
'Like Project Runway?' Ellie wanted to know.
'Exactly,' I said. 'They've even lined up one of the Project Runway finalists as emcee.'
'Oh my gosh, I love that show!' Tammy gushed. 'Who did they get?'
'I can't remember,' I confessed. The show had been on the air for what, fifteen seasons? As an off-again-on-again viewer, the contestants tended to blur in my mind.
'Oh, who cares, Tammy? It sounds like fun.' Ellie turned to me. 'Where do I sign up?'
I distributed a printout with details about the event, including the foundation's contact information. 'The show will be at the Visionary Arts Museum,' I continued. 'It's an awesome venue.'
I didn't tell the group that I was planning to apply to be a model myself. The American Visionary Art Museum, located at the foot of Federal Hill overlooking Baltimore's Inner Harbor, featured an eclectic mix of permanent and rotating exhibits by free-thinking, self-taught artists. I'd visited several times, and it was always an 'Oh, wow!' experience.
After everyone left, I finished closing up and hustled across the pedestrian bridge to the Garden Café on the first floor of the Clatanoff Pavilion.
Claire had already gone through the cafeteria line and was sitting at a wrought-iron table on the patio outside, nursing a bottle of iced tea. I waved, went through the line myself, snagged a cup of coffee and two oversized blueberry muffins, and joined her.
'Gosh, the sunshine feels good,' I said as I pulled out the chair opposite her and sat down. 'Here.' I pushed my plate across the table. 'For internal use only.'
'Thanks,' she said, selecting the smaller of the two muffins. 'I do believe I will.
'So, what's on your mind?' I asked.
Claire plunged right in. 'How would you like a free trip to Colorado?'
I choked on the coffee I'd just swallowed, and coughed. 'Colorado? What's in Colorado?'
'Denver, to be specific,' she said.
Claire took a bite of her muffin and chewed it slowly, thoughtfully, as if willing it, once swallowed, to stay put in her stomach where it belonged. 'There is a catch, however.'
'Isn't there always?'
'You'd have to testify before the Maryland State Senate about what you'd learned.'
'Learned about what?'
Colorado, I knew, had legalized recreational marijuana several years before and, by everything I'd seen in the news, was making a huge success of it. 'I'm totally the wrong person for the job, Claire. I haven't smoked since graduate school.'
She waggled her eyebrows.
I had to laugh. 'Well, not cigarettes, anyway.' After a pause, I added, 'Smoking killed my mom.'
'I hadn't realized,' Claire said, her face instantly serious.
We sat in silence for a while. 'Congestive heart failure,' I explained. 'I'd give anything to have her back.' I shook off the chilling memory of my mother's final days. 'Edibles, however? That's a more recent story.'
Claire brightened. 'Naughty girl! Do tell.'
'Paul and I took one of those Viking River cruises you see advertised on PBS. It was fabulous, by the way. The cruise ended in Amsterdam.' I shrugged 'When in Rome ...'
As I paused, wondering how much to tell her, Claire said, 'What happens in Amsterdam stays in Amsterdam, am I right?'
I relaxed. 'We wandered around a bit, looking for the specific coffee house our daughter, Emily, had recommended. We didn't realize how hard that would be.' I leaned forward. 'She was rather vague on directions, and Amsterdam is a big city.'
'They sell marijuana in coffee shops? How very Starbucks of them!'
I shook my head. 'Not coffee shops, coffee houses. Big difference. In Amsterdam, you can buy a cappuccino or a latte at a coffee shop or a café, but weed is available only at coffee houses which, oddly, rarely sell coffee.' I shrugged. 'Go figure. I was on a caffeine high,' I continued, 'before a helpful barista explained that coffee houses can't advertise because weit isn't strictly legal, just tolerated, but we should be on the lookout for places that display one of those red, green and yellow Rastafarian flags in the window. So, long story short, that's how we ended up in a funky place called the Bluebird not far from the Rembrandt Museum. Have you ever been to Amsterdam?' I asked my friend.
She shook her head, then pressed a hand against her chest, covering the spot where her left breast used to be. 'This is all new territory for me.' After a moment of silence, she flapped her hand, urging me to go on.
'I don't know how they do it in Denver, Claire, but in Amsterdam you simply walk into the coffee house, study the menu, make your selections and pay the budtender.'
'Budtender!' She laughed.
'Helpful guy, we found.' I chuckled, joining in. 'How else do you find out that the cheap joints are usually cut with regular tobacco?'
'How much does it cost?' she asked.
'Eight to ten euros for pure weed,' I said. 'The cheap shit? Half as much.'
'So ...?' She paused, eyebrows raised.
'As I said earlier, I wasn't about to pollute my lungs, but edibles? We decided to sample something they call "space cakes."'
'Alice B. Toklas brownies, you mean?'
'Like that, only better,' I said. 'Alice's were more like fruitcakes with not a speck of chocolate in them.'
I picked up the second muffin, slowly peeled off the paper wrapper and, using my hand as a saucer, placed the muffin on it. 'They look exactly like this, but they're made, I'm told, using hemp butter.' I set the muffin down. 'Space cakes come with operating instructions. Had too much? Do not panic! No need to call a medic! Baked fresh daily. In four languages, no less. Ingestion de spacecakes à vos propres risques, you know. Anyway, I took a bite, waited a bit but nothing happened. I figured we'd been ripped off. So I went to bed. When I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom – whoa! – the party in my head was already in full swing! Paul found me rummaging through the minibar for cans of Pringles and giggling my head off.'
'I knew you were the right gal for the job.'
Now she had my attention. Maybe I should have quit blabbing while I was ahead. 'What job?'
'You've been working with cancer survivors for a long time, Hannah. You offer a unique, long-term perspective.'
Claire was still talking in riddles. 'Perspective for what?'
'I've co-sponsored a Cannabis Legalization bill for Maryland. Legalize marijuana across the board. Regulate and tax, that's our motto.'
'Tax revenue,' I said. 'That should help sell the idea to skeptics.'
'Indeed, but it goes way beyond the money we know legalized pot would bring into Maryland – more than one hundred and fifty million dollars per one estimate. We want to study best practices and lessons learned from other states. One of the highlights of the trip is a day-long tour of an up-and-coming weedery outside Denver. You can be my eyes and ears there, focusing on growing techniques and commercial operations, while I concentrate on the legal aspects of the business. I'll need to offer evidence that rates of crime, black-market drug dealing, teenage heroin abuse and highway fatalities while driving under the influence actually go down after legalization.'
Excerpted from "Mile High Murder"
Copyright © 2017 Marcia Talley.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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