BY: LINDA THORNE
At long last, she lands a job with a good employer, but the trouble is just beginning…
Human resources manager Judy Kenagy hopes her days of running from bad bosses and guilt-ridden memories are over. But alas, she’s barely settled in when a young female employee is found shot to death, spinning her new workplace into turmoil. Small-town police chief, Carl Bombardier solicits Judy’s help in her role as the company’s HR Manager. While working with Judy, he shares his fanatical interest in a twenty-five-year-old double homicide he believes is linked to her last and worst bad boss. To make matters worse, the trusted assistant of her monster ex-boss starts showing up, keeping the unwanted connection going. When the pesky trusted assistant turns up murdered, Judy learns there’s a connection with the shooting death of the employee. She starts sleuthing at the crime scene and stumbles upon an important piece of evidence. Can she solve all of the murders with this single find? If she does, will she finally be freed from the demons of her past? Or are things not as they seem?
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Just Another Termination by Linda Thorne, Judy Kenagy is a human resources manager who left one nightmare job in LA only to take another disastrous job in Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Finally landing a job she likes and can live with at Rockhold Packaging, Judy is plagued by events that happened at her two previous places of employment. Haunted by a suicide that followed a wrongful termination at her employers in LA, Judy is devastated when a young female Rockhold employee is found murdered. Needing to find justice for the victim, Judy is determined to solve the case.
This is a cute and clever mystery with a hint of nostalgia, taking us back to a time before Hurricane Katrina and its devastation of the Gulf Coast. The characters are charming and the plot strong with plenty of surprises.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Just Another Termination by Linda Thorne is a cozy mystery that takes place on the Mississippi Gulf Coast prior to Hurricane Katrina. Our heroine, Judy Kenagy, works in human resources and has just escaped two jobs she hated. Now she has one she really likes, but her enjoyment fades when one of the employees is found shot in the face. Judy finds the body when she goes to the woman’s house after she fails to show up for work and doesn’t call, which is out of character. The incident reminds Judy too much of a young female employee who committed suicide after being terminated by one of Judy’s previous employers. Judy feels tremendous guilt over the girl’s suicide and equates finding justice for the current employee’s murder to finding justice for the suicide’s wrongful termination. While we never quite find out why she feels that way, it is clear that Judy has a strong case of PTSD.
Just Another Termination is a well-written, intriguing, and fun read. Thorne’s character development is superb, her characters interesting and realistic. The book has a strong plot, with a number of unexpected twists and turns that make it hard to put down.
When the plant manager told me Alma Guerra hadn’t shown up for work, I should’ve walked away from my quarter-century long career in human resources right then. But the thought didn’t enter my mind. Why would it? I couldn’t recall a single incident of a no-call-no-show amounting to much more than some trifling issue. Sure, you got those who’ve quit without notice, but they were always the ones you were glad to see go.
Not more than an hour after his announcement, Andy Holman waltzed back into my office with a new issue. “Judy, we’ve got to term Lester Robichaux.”
“What now?” I asked. In Lester’s mere six-weeks of employment, he’d already damaged two machines, putting them out of operation for weeks.
“He dropped a motor on the plant floor. It’s done for, and so is he.”
I rolled my eyes and sighed. “I’ll prepare the discharge papers and meet you in your office.”
I’d gotten as far as opening the blank termination form and typing in Lester’s name when Millie Landry rapped on my doorframe. “I’m worried about Alma. I’ve been calling her all morning.”
Having a bout of hot flashes, I didn’t want to deal with it so I waved her off. “Maybe she overslept, or had car trouble.”
But I knew Millie couldn’t be pacified. She was Alma’s supervisor, and a motherly one at that. No doubt she had visions of Alma getting in a car accident, or a random fire at her house.
Millie cited a list of possible calamities before dropping dramatically into one of my straight-back chairs. “Alma was due in at seven. Judy, I’m telling you something’s wrong.” Her Southern Mississippi drawl cut across my desk without losing a note. “For land sakes, the girl’s worked here ten years with no attendance issues.”
I gulped. “Ten years?”
“Yes. If you knew her, you’d be in a panic, too.”
I’d only worked for this packaging manufacturer for less than two months and hadn’t met most of the two hundred plus employees yet.
Millie scooted closer, her dark hair, chocked-full of gray, hardly moving. “I’m going to drive over.”
I held up a hand to keep her in her seat. “Let’s pass it by Andy first.” I leaned toward the phone, hit the speaker button, and tapped in Andy’s extension. When he answered, I said, “Millie’s here, upset about Alma, and–”
“You mean she still hasn’t shown? Alma’s never late.”
“I want to check in on her,” Millie piped in.
“Hold off,” he said. “Judy, look through Alma’s file. Try her emergency contacts first. Millie, we’ll get back to you, but we’ve got another issue at the moment.”
On the personal information form Alma had completed upon being hired, she’d listed her parents. At the time, they’d lived here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but she’d noted a change, showing their address was now in Texas, along with a new out-of-state phone number. I flipped through the rest of her file, looking for local contacts, then went back to completing Lester’s termination form.
With the papers in hand, I pushed the door leading out to the plant open. Rows of machines stretched out before me. Their warning lights flashed, reflecting off the rusting, thirty-foot ceiling, while an array of noises roared in my ears.
Millie stood near a cluster of box-folding machines, holding a clipboard, a stocky, uniformed woman beside her. “Millie!” I called over all the grinding and clacking. She glanced up then transferred the clipboard to the woman and serpentined around the machines.
I led her to a slightly quieter spot. “Her parents are her only contacts, but they’re out of state. I’ll get back to you after Andy and I handle this other matter.”
Millie bit down on her lower lip. “I don’t like this. I don’t know of anyone who could look in on her ’cept me or one of her co-workers.”
I had to admit I didn’t like it either. The memory of another young woman surfaced for the first time since I took this job, intensifying my feeling of unease. I’d hoped to shake the tragic memory by changing jobs, yet here she was with me once more. I shuddered and rubbed my brow.
“Are you okay?” Millie asked, laying a hand on my shoulder.
“It’s kind of hot in here,” I said. Memories of Jolene Cromwell frightened me. Would the whole thing be permanently carved into my psyche, my being? I shook my head to clear it. I couldn’t let myself get trapped in the past. I had a termination to deal with. Holding up the papers in my hand, I said, “Anyway, I’ll get back to you once I’ve taken care of this.”
I walked away and headed for the long corridor to the back offices. Stopping before the door with a plaque that read Plant Manager, I gave a quick knock then pushed the door open. Inside, Andy sat at a small table.
I pulled up a chair. “Did you send him for a drug screen?”
“Yeah, but I’m not waiting for the results,” Andy said. “This is a terminable offense.”
“Shouldn’t we include Bert? He is Lester’s supervisor.”
“Bert’s at a doctor’s appointment. He’ll be here soon, but we don’t need him.”
As I handed Andy the termination form, Millie passed by the open door. Andy leapt out of his chair and stuck his head into the hall. “Hey, Millie. Could ya run by the machine shop and send Lester in?”
While we waited, I told Andy about the no-show employee’s contacts not being local.
He heaved a sigh. “I know Alma. She’s in trouble or she’d be here. Something must have happened.”
Unlike the last couple of places I’d worked, this management team showed respect and concern for their employees, traits I admired. And I’d already begun to feel camaraderie with my co-workers, as well as my boss.
Lester peered in through the open door. The scowl line across his forehead looked deeper than when I’d hired him. He lumbered forward, a shrunken man who wore his pants hiked halfway to his chest. He plopped into a chair, gravity tugging at the corners of his mouth. His dishwater-blond hair looked tousled, unkempt like the gray stubble on his face. His gaze caught mine and he swiveled his head twice in reaction, realization dawning on his face. “You’re the HR lady.”
“You’ve had one too many accidents, Lester,” Andy said. “And you’re still in your ninety-day trial period. So, I’m sorry, but your employment ends today.”
“No. Please, Mr. Holman. Don’t fire me.”
I looked across the table at Andy. Since I’d started, no one had ever addressed him as Mr. Holman. I figured it was due to the fact that he didn’t look old enough to be a plant manager.
Andy sighed and handed Lester the discharge papers. “Unfortunately, it all comes down to numbers, I’m afraid. It’s costing us more to fix the damage you’ve caused than what your salary is worth. Sorry, but this is irreversible. If you have comments, please write them here and sign.”
With an uneasy feeling, I led Lester down the hall to the supply room. I’d endured more than my share of bad terminations and had a feeling this one wasn’t over yet. I just hoped my gut feeling was wrong.
I pulled out a checklist while he transferred any company property from his locker to the supply table–spare uniforms, keys, and gloves. When he turned over his name badge, he started mumbling incoherently.
I gritted my teeth, trying to not let my anxiety takeover. “Let’s stay focused, Lester. You’re almost done.”
“I am done,” he muttered. “I’ll have to eat a bullet now.”
My efforts at remaining nonchalant flew across the room, along with the pen I’d been holding. Feigning calm, I said, “I’ll be right back.”
Dropping the checklist, I sailed down the hall to Andy’s office, slammed my hands against his doorframe and swung my head in. “He’s threatening suicide,” I said, shouting over Andy’s telephone conversation with someone on speakerphone.
Without waiting for a response, I shoved off and sprinted back to Lester. The poor man was folded over the supply table, sobbing.
A moment later, Andy burst in. Resting his hand gently on Lester’s shoulder, he sat down beside him at the supply table. “This isn’t personal,” he said. “But you had another accident, and it’s our policy–”
Lester looked up, his face dripping with tears and his shoulders heaving. “This always happens to me.”
Andy put one hand out, palm up. “Lester, try to calm down. We’ll get you some help. We have an employee assistance program–”
“But you fired me.”
“You’re covered through the end of the month.” Over Lester’s head, Andy signaled to me and I quick-stepped to his side. “Get the EAP on the phone,” he whispered in my ear. “Speed-dial number three.”
Once more, I hurried down to Andy’s office. A woman who introduced herself as Dottie Salazar answered after the second ring.
“I’m Judy Kenagy, the new HR manager for Rockhold Packaging in Ocean Springs, Mississippi,” I said in a rush, gripping the receiver with both hands. “We just terminated an employee, and now he’s threatening suicide.”
“Can you get him on the phone?” she asked in a choppy tone.
“I–I’ll try,” I said, my voice trembling. This can’t be happening. Not again, I thought.
Shoving images of Jolene’s tortured face from my mind, I put Dottie on hold and stepped into the hallway. Just then Lester came out of the supply room, Andy steering him toward me from behind.
As they approached, I fell into step beside them. “We have someone on the phone you can talk to,” I said.
Together, we nudged Lester into Andy’s office, sitting him down in Andy’s desk chair. I took the phone off hold and handed him the receiver then we returned to the hallway, leaving the door open.
“I don’t think he’s leaving without a police escort,” Andy whispered.
Hearing a clicking sound, we looked back at the door to find it closed. We swapped glances, but before either of us could move toward the door, an earsplitting crash-bang-clank came from inside the room. We jumped back just as Lester bounded out, bumping my shoulder and knocking me backward into Andy. He paused long enough to shake a fist at us, his tear-streaked face tensed and pink, then he turned and sped toward the back of the plant.
“Don’t leave,” Andy hollered after him.
Lester steamrolled past his supervisor, Bert, who had just arrived through the back entrance. Bert tumbled to the floor as Lester bolted out the door and into the parking lot.
“Wait,” Andy yelled as he sprinted past Bert sprawled on the floor.
“Shove it up your ass,” Lester shouted. “I ain’t talkin’ to you people no more.”
I joined the chase, scolding myself for wearing heels to work that day. When I got to Bert, I stopped and offered a hand, helping him into a sitting position. He dangled a pair of crushed eyeglasses in my face and groaned. I patted his shoulder then stumbled back into a run.
By the time I reached the parking lot, Lester had climbed into a rust-colored Ford pickup at the far end of the lot. Andy stood near the truck, jotting the plate number onto a tiny notepad.
I darted down the ramp then knitted in and around parked cars, jogging over a long stretch of empty parking spaces to the outer edge of the blacktop. The little truck coughed and choked, vibrating in tune to the clatter of its engine.
The driver’s side window rolled down and Lester stuck his head out, his face burning red, his scowl line compressed into a dark, double-fold. “Andy Holman, you bastard! I’m going to git’ my gun and come back here and kill you! No faggoty-ass sonovabitch is gonna fire me.”
The pickup reeled forward, its tires squealing as he raced out of the parking lot.
Andy cocked his head to one side and gave me a lopsided grin. “Hmmm. So much for thinking Alma Guerra was the problem of the day.”
I’d forgotten all about Alma but now my earlier dread returned. Praying whatever had kept her from work that day was trivial, I glanced back at the building a football field away. I felt small standing beside Andy on the vast expanse of asphalt, watching the pickup careen out the front gate and out of sight.
As we walked back, Andy had his cell against his ear, talking to the police. After reading off the license plate number, he hung up and sighed. “They’ve got an ABP out for Lester so hopefully they’ll pick him up before he can hurt anyone. And they’re sending a patrolman over to get our story.”
Once back inside, Andy heaved the back door closed, sliding the thick steel bolt into place.
“What a reversal,” I said. “The man was crying suicide one minute and threatening to kill you the next.”
“And he called me a faggoty-ass.”
“But you handled him as any practiced manager would.”
Andy threw his hands out, palms up. “Call me the consummate professional.”
I laughed. I’d gotten used to his flippant remarks. They could take me out of a serious situation in a flash, but only for the moment. We still had another issue to deal with. “Call Millie and see if she’s found out what’s up with Alma Guerra yet.”
“Let us worry about her. I need you to brief George before the cop gets here. Oh, and update the EAP rep about Lester.” Andy whipped around and headed for his office.
Going through the plant on the way to George’s office, I tripped on a wooden pallet. Stumbling to get around it, I stepped inside the yellow caution lines on the cement floor and had a near miss with a forklift.
God, what else can go wrong today?
“Are you h–hurt?” Bert asked, standing next to a cutting machine. Cardboard dust covered the floor at his feet.
“No, but I could’ve been.” Pointing, I said, “That pallet needs to be moved.”
“Sorry. Without my glasses, I c–can’t see much m–more than the brightness of the lights. Heard the forklift’s horn and barely made out your image.” Turning his head toward another employee, he raised his voice to be heard over the cutting machine. “D–Dixie, c–could you help me over here with this p–pallet?”
A huge shadow fell over me and I looked over to see a muscular hulk. He skulked over and plucked up the stray pallet with one hand. Dangling the pallet against his side, Dixie took it to a nearby stack and dropped it on top. Then he returned to his machine in silence, not looking at either of us.
“Is that R–Robichaux fellow g–gone?” Bert asked.
“Yeah. Andy had to report him to the police.”
He shook his head. “Sure c–caused a r–ruckus. And my glasses…” He sighed. “Pulverized.”
With all Bert’s stuttering, I found it interesting that he could throw out a big word every once in a while and have it come out as smooth as silk. “Well, you can’t work if you can’t see. How are you getting home?”
“My w–wife’s on her way.”
“All right. I’ll help you out to the front.” Taking him by the arm, I led him to the front entrance where I left him waiting on a bench then headed to George’s office. As general manager, George Nichols was my direct boss, overseeing our plant in Ocean Springs.
I updated George on the sequence of events leading to Lester’s discharge and what followed, expecting some kind of concern for what we’d been through. I also told him about Alma Guerra’s absence.
The mention of Alma’s name instantly brought George to his feet. “Why wasn’t I informed?” he said. “If Alma hasn’t shown up or called, something bad’s happened.”
Considering I’d been hit with surprises all morning, I shouldn’t have been shocked that my boss seemed more concerned about Alma than the impending interview with a police officer over a potentially violent ex-employee. “She may be in now,” I said. “Andy’s getting an update from Millie.” Leaning forward, I spun George’s desk phone around, punched in Andy’s extension, then pressed the speaker button. Andy’s lack of any news didn’t help matters.
I set the phone back in place. “I’m sorry, George. At first, this seemed like a regular no-call-no-show. And then we had the whole Lester Robichaux fiasco.”
George just stared at me in silence.
Backing out of his office, I tried for a reassuring smile. “I’ll try calling her house again. If she doesn’t answer, I’ll go over there myself.”
Alma’s house was in an older section of Ocean Springs, where the homes were modest but maintained with pride. Most had only slender driveways and no garages, as they were built at a time when owning more than one car was common only for those in upper middle class or rich neighborhoods. As expected in the midst of a work day, the majority of the driveways were empty, so the sight of the Honda Civic in Alma’s set off an alarm inside my head.
I parked at the curb. A sign stuck into the small front lawn read John Kerry for President. I glanced around. Across the street, a man unlocked his front door and let himself in. A young couple, with two dogs, strolled by. Down the block, a mail truck stopped in front of a house, the driver hurrying up the front walk to deliver a package.
Nothing out of the ordinary, I thought. Nothing to warrant the sense of impending danger I kept feeling. Was I still that traumatized by my memories of Jolene?
Only the presence of the Honda suggested Alma was home. The heavy curtains covering the large picture window were still drawn, not leaving so much as a half-inch gap.
I climbed out of my car and crossed the lawn to the wooden porch. Taking the three steps up, I made my way to the door, the planks squeaking beneath my feet. I nervously looked around once more then knocked.
The door drifted open on the first rap with a sharp squeal from the old hinges. I shrank back, my breath catching. It’s okay, I told myself. This isn’t like that time. Steeling myself, I peered through the opening and called inside. “Alma Guerra? This is Judy Kenagy, the HR manager from Rockhold Packaging. We were worried about you.”
I touched the door lightly and it creaked open farther. I stepped in and froze, staring in horror and disbelief.
A woman’s body lay sprawled out on her back right there on the living room floor. As much as I wanted it to be otherwise, she had to be Alma Guerra. She wore the company’s standard issue brown uniform and black safety shoes, Rockhold’s logo embroidered across the chest pocket. Her head was cocked at an odd angle, her face covered with a mass of coagulated blood. Long, black hair, splotched with dark red goo, fanned out around her head.
I covered my mouth, stumbling backward until I bumped into the doorframe. Then turning, I bounded down the porch steps and bolted across the lawn.
© 2015 by Linda Thorne