The Springfield Bee offices were in the basement of the high school. Much of the space was taken up by an old printing press that hadn’t been used in years—ever since the paper went digital. But it was too big to move, so the Bee offices were its permanent home. Madison found Mr. Portnoy in his office behind the giant machine and tapped on the doorframe. “You busy?” she asked.
“I’m never too busy for my reporter at large!” he said. “Come on in.”
Madison closed the office door behind her and settled into a chair across from his desk. She pulled her notebook from her backpack, found the story outline, and placed it in front of her teacher, holding the book open with one hand. “I’m working on a story,” she said.
Mr. Portnoy rubbed his hands together, put on his reading glasses, and leaned forward to look. “Excellent. What kind of a story?”
“Investigative journalism,” she said. “I’ve stumbled onto some kind of a conspiracy. I believe that it involves people at the highest levels of government. Drug smuggling. Weapons. Stockpiling of medical supplies, food, and water.”
Her teacher looked up at her, his jaw slack. A beat passed. Then he released a loud belly laugh. “Madison! You totally had me going there for a minute!”
Madison raised her eyebrows but did not respond. She had known Mr. P. for three years, and they spent many late nights together working to get the paper out on time. Her rapport with him was natural and friendly. She waited. His expression soured. “You’re serious aren’t you,” he said.
“Dead serious. I think I’m in over my head. This feels more like a New York Times or Washington Post kind of story than something for a student newspaper.”
“How did you uncover this conspiracy?” he asked.
“By accident. Overheard a really weird conversation in an IHOP. Started digging. The main guy, Mr. Black—they all use code names, by the way—was a high level lawyer in the EPA until a couple years ago. In D.C. But he’s living here now in a house owned by some corporation. The same corporation is paying for security at their warehouse, and I suspect it might be bankrolling the whole operation.”
Mr. Portnoy sat in silence as he looked over the outline. Then he sat back in his chair, which caused the springs to whine in dismay. He folded his arms over his chest. “Hmm.”
“I can’t write the story yet, because I only know who, what, where, and when,” she said.
“No why,” he replied.
“Exactly. I’m out of leads, but I figure if I keep searching I might find another thread to pick up.”
He sat in silence awhile. “This sounds like it could be dangerous. You mentioned drug smuggling? Like a cartel?”
“No, not like that. Drugs like insulin.”
“Why would someone need to smuggle insulin?” he asked.
“There’s that pesky ‘why’ again,” she said with a little grin.
Mr. Portnoy laughed. “So it is. And you said weapons?”
“I think they are just for the security of the place where they are keeping the stockpiles. They have a bunch of armed guards. They also mentioned stockpiling money, in the conversation I heard at the IHOP. So that explains why they’d have armed guards, I think.”
“Pancakes notwithstanding, these seem like they might be dangerous people. They might not want you poking around.”
“I don’t suppose they would, no,” she said. “I don’t suppose Nixon wanted Woodward and Bernstein poking around, either.”
The teacher laughed. “No. No, I suppose he didn’t. Who have you told about this story?”
“Not your mom?” he asked.
“No, not yet. Do you think I should?”
He pursed his lips and nodded. “Well, I know that journalistic integrity is really important to you. And I know that you are almost an adult. But in a case like this—”
“Have you ever encountered a case like this?” she interrupted.
“Well, no. I can’t say I’ve ever had a student uncover a vast government conspiracy. But I’ve certainly had cases where my reporters uncovered a crime, or could be in danger because of the power of the person they wanted to expose. And in a case like that, I think it’s usually best to get the parents involved. Make sure they know what you’re dealing with, so they can provide support and advice.”
“Ugh. My mom is going to tell me to drop it,” Madison said.
He nodded. “She might. Or she might see that it’s important to you, and just ask you to be careful. Would it help if I was there for the discussion?”
“Um…” Madison hesitated. “I mean, isn’t that weird? You coming to my house? Or do you mean her coming in during the day, because with her work, I don’t see that ever happening.”
“I was thinking I could swing by your house some night. We have a little sit-down. Talk it through.”
“Huh. Yeah, well if you’re okay with doing that. I think that could be great. I mean, assuming you have my back and you’re not going to just side with her.” Madison smiled.
Mr. Portnoy laughed. “No promises. I’ll hear you both out and come down on the side I think feels right.”
“Okay. I’ll check with my mom on when, and I’ll let you know.”
“Good. So if you decide to move ahead, what’s your plan for finding that pesky ‘why’?”
Madison shook her head slowly. “I was this close to just knocking on Mr. Black’s door and asking him. I mean, I’m sure he’d lie about it, but at least then I’d have something to dig in to.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea. What we usually do with an exposé is find out everything we possibly can. Make a couple guesses if we have to. And then give them the whole story for comment just before press time. Give them a fair chance to respond but not enough time to get an injunction.”
“Oh, wow,” Madison said. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” She furrowed her brow and looked curiously at her teacher. “We never talked about what you did before teaching. I guess you were a reporter?”
He smiled and nodded. “That’s a story for another day.”