Chapter 3: Jenna

Jenna sat in the passenger seat of the rental car and chewed her thumbnail while her producer, Bernard, drove them away from the Vidalia Regional Airport. The tiny turboprop plane they’d taken from their connecting flight in Savannah had left her too shaken up to have an appetite for lunch.

“Don’t bite your nails,” Bernard snapped in a rough New York accent. It always reminded Jenna of how Harvey Fierstein sounded. Bernard even looked a little like the famous actor, but lacked the humor that the larger-than-life character portrayed.

Clasping her hands in her lap, Jenna puffed out her cheeks as she let out a slow breath. Bernard had found someone inside Radiant Chemical Corporation who was willing to talk about the Georgia chemical plant closing. Her station wanted to tell a story about the local plant closing just before the holidays. He would coordinate with the local news station, but Jenna had to bring the story to life if should keep her mind on the job.

“How far is it to the hotel?” she asked.

“About thirty minutes, according to my phone,” Bernard said. “How come you’re back from a Thanksgiving wedding more wound up than when you left?”

“Just lucky, I guess,” she muttered to him and stared out at the Georgia winter. The trees were bare and the only color that wasn’t a shade of brown was the sky, and that was dull gray. She caught her reflection in the window glass and stared at herself. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

“So did your friend get cold feet or something?” Bernard asked, clearly not willing to let the topic die.

“No,” Jenna whispered, then cleared her throat and pasted a fake smile on her face. “The wedding was great.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“I’d rather not talk about it, Bernie,” she sighed, hoping to deflect him by using the nickname he hated.

“Don’t call me Bernie,” he growled. “If the wedding was okay, then it’s got to be a man.” Bernard hummed for a moment. “Come to think of it, I haven’t seen you date once since you’ve been in New York.” He gasped and looked over at her with wide eyes. “Is it a woman?”

That drew a sad chuckle out of her. “No, it’s not a woman.”

“It’s not the groom, is it?” Bernie loved to gossip, and the more drama the better. “Oh my God, you slept with the groom before the wedding!”

“No!” That got a laugh and a genuine smile. “He’s a great guy, don’t get me wrong, but Alex and Molly were made for each other.”

“One of the groomsmen, then?”

“Manny and Will are cute,” she said with mock seriousness, “but they’re also six years old.” The dirty look she shot his way didn’t dissuade him.

“Okay, that only leaves the best man,” Bernard pronounced after glancing at her face, which clearly showed her misery. “What’s his name?”

“Larry,” Jenna sighed despite herself. She shut her eyes and pressed her palms against her eyelids. “I can’t believe I’m talking to you about this.”

“I wish someone would say my name like that.” Bernard mocked, fanning himself with his hand. He quickly realized Jenna was not amused and changed his tone. “Do I need to call someone to kick his ass?”

Jenna gave him a sideways smile. “Good luck with that. He’s the toughest man I’ve ever met.”

“How did he hurt you?”

“He didn’t.” Jenna sighed again, swallowing the lump in her throat while pushing past the tears threatening to break free. “I hurt him.”

“Some big tough guy let you hurt him?” Bernard asked. “Not buying it.”

“I don’t want to get into it,” she said and took a deep breath. “Tell me some more about the leak at the plant.”

“Well right now it’s not so much a leak as a whiff of gas, but Meredith swears there’s something serious going on.”

Jenna pulled out her phone and reviewed the notes Bernard had sent her. “Meredith Weigman. Accounting contractor. She’s only been there three years. What could she know?”

“She’s part of the due-diligence team for the German conglomerate that wants to buy Radiant Chemical and has been digging through years of paper records that date back to the seventies.” Bernard glanced over to give Jenna a significant look.

“So why’s she telling us instead of her boss?” Jenna asked.

“She won’t say, but if she stumbled onto something juicy then she’s probably looking for a bigger payday. I don’t care why she’s leaking as long as we can make a story out of it.”

Bernard had been in the business for years and was capable of finding the interesting angle in any story. With the explosion of the Internet, news departments had been shedding their staff for a decade. The fact that Bernard was still producing news was a testament to his ability to find good stories.

“Maybe they’ve been dumping waste?” Jenna speculated.

“That’s the first thing I asked, but she swears it’s bigger than that. Before I agreed to bring you in, I made her give me something concrete. She gave me the name of some old Libyan shipping company to research. I didn’t find anything related to Radiant Chemical, but there were some very interesting stories on the Internet. Back in 1986, before Reagan got into his pissing contest with Muammar Gaddafi, the company was apparently shipping black market arms and drugs all over the world.”

“So maybe someone at Radiant Chemical was supplying something to the Libyans during the sanctions? That’s interesting, but hardly newsworthy thirty years later.”

Bernie shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter. At worst, we get a human face on the plant closure. At best, we get a lead on a real story. It’s a win-win for us either way.”

The rest of the car ride passed in silence. After Jenna and Bernard arrived at the hotel, they checked into separate rooms and Jenna went to freshen up. She had just gotten out of the bathroom when her cell phone rang with Bernard’s company headshot on the screen. She swiped and asked, “What’s up?”

“Meredith is waiting for us in the lobby.”

“On my way.”

After getting off the elevator, Jenna put on her reporter’s mask as she walked toward Bernard and a thin, middle-aged woman sitting at a meeting table in the corner of the deserted lobby. Meredith had the pinched face of someone who enjoyed making others miserable, but Jenna grinned anyway and extended her hand.

“Jenna Banks,” she said as Meredith gave her a limp shake. “I’m gonna be covering this story with Bernard.” Jenna sat at the table and scooted her chair in.

Meredith turned back to Bernard without a word to Jenna. “You said you were bringing a famous reporter.”

“Do you remember the Alex Thompson story this summer?” Bernard asked. “Someone tried to kill him and take his kids?” Meredith shook her head. “Well, that was Jenna and her work was good enough to get her moved to New York. The story and the follow-up were just submitted for a Peabody Award by the network. Trust me, she’s the one you want helping tell your story.”

A petulant frown creased Meredith’s brow as she leaned closer to Bernie to whisper, “She’s not the one you promised me.”

Jenna glanced at Bernard and caught his lips twitching. It was his personal tell. Everyone did something unique when they lied or felt vulnerable. Jenna’s chest grew tight when she realized Bernard hadn’t been honest with her, but her own mask never slipped.

“Trust me, Meredith,” Jenna said while projecting as much confidence as she could muster. “Just tell me what’s going on and let me do what I do best.”

“No, not here,” Meredith said as she glanced around the empty lobby.

Jenna resisted the desire to roll her eyes. Sometimes confidential informants acted like they were spies in the movies.

Meredith stared out the front door of the hotel. “Meeting here was a mistake.”

When she got up, Bernard stood as well. “Then where do you want to meet?”

“Come by my house at seven.” Meredith handed Bernard a card. “I’ve got the evidence hidden where no one will find it. And it’ll be worth your time, trust me.”

“Can’t you give us anything now?” Bernard begged, clearly frustrated.

“You’ll find out everything soon enough.” Meredith walked away and out the automatic doors at the front of the hotel.

“Why do they always have to pretend they’re starring in a bad movie,” Bernard stated. “Whatever, let’s go get something to eat. There is someone else I want you to meet before we go see her again.”

Jenna followed Bernard out to their rental car and considered what to do about his lie. She had pitched the story at the network’s news planning meeting just before Thanksgiving. It was just one of a dozen potential stories floated that day, but no one seemed especially interested at the time. She had already researched the background before leaving on vacation and turned her notes over to Bernard for review when she left.

He hadn’t called her once while she was on vacation, which she appreciated at the time. Now she wasn’t so sure that was a good sign. It was obvious to Jenna now that Bernard had come out to Georgia to follow up on her research and met Meredith the week of Thanksgiving. That must have been when he promised her someone else would be coming back to interview her. She waited until they were driving and Bernard got off his cell phone.

“Okay, that was Carrie York,” Bernard said as he put his phone back in his shirt pocket. “She’s a chemist at the plant and is the breadwinner for her family. She’s gonna meet us at a diner up the road.”

Jenna nodded and tried to keep the emotion out of her voice when she asked, “So who did you plan on giving my story to?”

“It’s not your story, it’s the network’s story,” Bernard said without looking her direction. Then his lips twitched.

“And I’m not in the research department,” Jenna said. “I’m the one who did the work and framed the narrative against the flagging economy and Christmas.”

“You’ve been in New York, what? A couple of months?” Bernard laughed. “The only reason you’re even in Georgia with me is because McKenna Allison got the flu over the weekend.”

Jenna sucked in her cheeks and waited for the rage inside to bend to her control. From the first day on the job McKenna had been a complete bitch. She was a hometown New Yorker and came up from the local news stations. Her snide comments about third-tier markets like San Antonio had set the tone of their relationship early on.

“You need to toughen up. No one serious about their job goes on vacation. You snooze, you lose, babe.” Bernard pulled into the diner’s parking lot and gave her a firm look.

“Well, I’m here now, so let’s get to work.” Jenna kept her tone neutral, but winced at the painful reminder she’d just received. Trust no one. Don’t show weakness. Stay focused on the job.

Carrie York was a bright chemist who looked more like a typical suburban mom. She actually had three young kids, so maybe she was more of a bright mom who happened to be a chemist. She had been working at Radiant Chemical for over a decade while her husband worked there part-time as a security guard in the evenings and stayed home with their children during the day.

Jenna took notes and considered how their family would play in the story. Both Carrie and her husband Robert had been born in the area and loved being close to their families. Someone with an advanced degree in chemistry like Carrie could probably find work, but they would have to move away from their home for it.

By the time they had finished their meal, Jenna had a good idea how she wanted to tell this part of the story. She thanked Carrie and made plans to film the interview with Bernard the next day. When Carrie drove away, Bernard and Jenna got back in the rental to head over to meet Meredith again and find out what the big secret was.

“Good idea about filming them in their home,” Bernard said with too much enthusiasm. “I’ll call the local affiliate and schedule a truck to meet us out there tomorrow.”

Jenna rolled her eyes. Praising her for nothing was his way of trying to smooth things over between them. “Let’s go see what Meredith thinks she’s discovered.”

Her house was a one-story set back on a couple of acres out in the country. The detached garage looked like a miniature red barn with white trim. A white sedan was parked on the gravel driveway that ended between the house and garage. Bernard parked near the front door and sat behind the wheel without speaking for a moment.

“Look, it ain’t personal. It’s just that McKenna is starting to make a name for herself nationally. I know you had that one story out in Texas, but you need that kinda story once a week.”

“You need give me a chance to make a name for myself too. This is the first story I’ve pitched that has legs. Let me run with it and I’ll do it again next week.”

“Go on, then.” He gestured at the house and nodded. “I ain’t gonna stop you.”

Jenna got out of the car, shook out her hair, and squared her shoulders. She walked to the front door of the house, but slowed when she saw it was slightly open. Looking back, Bernard was still in the car with his phone to his ear.

“Hello?” Jenna called as she pushed the door open. “Meredith?”

The home was dark. An acrid stench overpowered the lingering scent of a Christmas tree. Something was wrong. Jenna pulled out her phone and unlocked it to dial 911, but didn’t press the call button immediately. In Texas, Jenna had a concealed carry permit and suddenly missed the little Ruger she’d always carried in her purse.

No one was in the living room as she stepped inside the house. The Christmas tree was there. The dining room was empty as well, but the table for six was missing a chair. She stepped quietly through to the kitchen and stopped when she found Meredith.

She was sitting in the missing chair with two powder-burned bullet holes in her forehead. Her arms and legs were secured to the chair with thick gray tape. Her fingers were twisted in strange directions and her make-up had run down her swollen face.

Jenna pressed the call button and lifted the phone to her ear.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

“I need to report a murder.”

Read the rest when Holding On comes out in September 2017.