By Beth Saulnier
Published by Mysterious Press
February 2002; 0-892-96749-8; 304 pages
The nastiest marriage in Walden County history ended a couple of yards from where it started, on the supernaturally green lawn of the university chapel. The fact that it ended surprised exactly no one-especially those who'd attended the ceremony, which had culminated in such aggressive rice throwing on the part of the bride that the groom spent most of his wedding night in the emergency room, having little white grains plucked from his eyes.
No, it was how it ended that got people; nobody would've thought the match would actually turn out to be till-death-do-us-part. But exactly fourteen years and two days after the wedding, the groom expired on his way across campus. And as for the bride-she did the last thing anyone expected. After fourteen years and forty-eight hours of swearing up and down that she hated his guts, she cried so hard she had to be sedated.
Then she was arrested for his murder.
It didn't happen right away, of course. In the first few days after Lane Freeman keeled over in front of a particularly hideous cherub, the grieving widow act held up; his death was assumed to be from natural causes. Yes, his wife had always told anyone who'd listen (including their five kids, aged six to thirteen) that she wished to hell he'd drop dead right this minute. But when it finally happened, nobody could believe she'd actually done it. They figured he'd had a heart attack, or an aneurysm, or whatever it is you die from when you're a middle-aged white guy who eats crap all day and never exercises. Then the toxicology report came back, and Mrs. Freeman was in a whole lot of trouble.
In the weeks following the arrest, rumor had it that she was dying to cop a plea. But the Walden County D.A. isn't what you'd call a forgiving sort-it's endlessly frustrating to him that Singapore has caning and we don't-and he saw no reason to deal. He even made noises about going for the death penalty, which was completely ridiculous under the circumstances. But in the end he figured no jury was going to send a desperately unhappy mother of five to the chair (or even the needle), so he set his sights on twenty-five to life. And the hyper-educated denizens of Gabriel, New York, settled back for the ultimate in civic entertainment: a really juicy murder trial.
I had a ringside seat for this spectacle, seeing as I was covering it for the local paper. It wasn't my usual job-I'm on the city government beat, not cops and courts. But since the Monitor 's search for a new police reporter was taking several lifetimes, the trial coverage was being assigned to whoever was vaguely qualified to write about whatever was happening that day. The paper's science writer (my beer-swilling buddy Jake Madison) therefore had the joy of sitting through hours of testimony on the chemistry of plant-based poisons, while I got sent to record all the ugly details of the Freemans' miserable relationship.
I'm not quite sure what to make of that.
The fact is, though, I had another connection to the unhappy couple: They both worked at Benson, which falls into my beat. Shelley Freeman was an associate dean at the agricultural college; her husband wrote pithy press releases for the university news service.
He was also, as it happened, an alumnus of the Gabriel Monitor. You'd think that would make us go all soft and squishy at his demise, but that wasn't quite the case. Freeman had jumped ship from journalism to flackery-and as far as we were concerned that was a capital crime. Plus, considering what a royal pain in the ass he'd been pre-mortem, it was a miracle that the members of the Gabriel Press Club hadn't offed him en masse years ago.
But that honor had gone to his wife, a former Benson student council president who'd come to campus at seventeen and never left. She'd graduated with a bachelor's in plant pathology, earned a master's in agricultural economics, then taken a job vetting prospective Ivy Leaguers in the ag-school admissions office. She'd worked her way up to associate ag dean-and if she hadn't made the mistake of killing her husband on university property, she probably would've wound up as vice president for Obsequious Grant-Mongering, or some such thing.
Lane himself had had a less satisfying career trajectory. He'd been editor in chief of the Benson student paper, which is more impressive than it sounds; the Bugle is a daily that has been known to scoop the pros every once in a while. After graduation, he got a perfectly respectable job covering towns for the Monitor. But three years and two kids later, his wife decided (a) there was no way she was leaving Gabriel to follow him to some midsize fish wrapper and (b) he'd better start making some real money or else. So he turned in his press pass and went over to the dark side, where he spent the next decade trumpeting the glory of all things Benson to anybody with a tape recorder.
If the job made him unhappy, nobody ever knew it-not because he seemed content but because he was always so depressed it was impossible to dissect the causes of his misery. There was his dead-end career, the notoriously awful Gabriel weather, the stress of five kids, and, last but not least, the fact that he and his wife loathed each other.
You're probably wondering why they ever got together in the first place; having seen them go ten rounds in the pickle aisle at the Shop 'n Save, I've wondered that myself. All I can say is that, from what I hear, their romance was based on aggression from day one: He was covering student government, she was running it, and apparently they'd have raging fights over campus politics and wind up screwing like rabbits. They didn't just rub each other the wrong way, in other words; they rubbed each other exactly the wrong way. They fit together like Lego blocks, neurosis snapped to neurosis.
The question of why they got hitched is considerably more straightforward: She was Catholic, and she got pregnant. So, on a typically gloomy Saturday two weeks before spring break, her parents hosted an elegantly catered shotgun wedding at the Benson chapel. And fourteen years later, exactly two days after he forgot their anniversary for the third year running, she put him out of her misery.
The Freeman story was a cautionary tale, one that offered more than a few lessons about love, marriage, and life in general. And not the least of them was this: If you decide you want to poison your husband, don't leave traces of the stuff you killed him with all over the backseat of your Subaru Forester.
The Shelley Freeman trial was front-page news for a solid month. That may sound a wee bit provincial, and it probably is. But the truth is that although we get our fair share of murders around here-way more than our fair share, come to think of it-we don't tend to have very many trials; for whatever reason, our homicidal maniacs tend to be the confess-or-die-by-gunfire variety.
The Widow Freeman was the exception. Although the scuttle-butt had her angling to plead to a lesser charge, when it came to facing down a quarter-century in the slammer she started swearing up and down that she was absolutely, totally, and completely innocent.
Her lawyer, a Yellow Dog Democrat named Jim Collier who's intimately familiar with lost causes, figured he might as well put his client on the stand and let her do her swearing under oath, on the off chance one juror out of twelve might buy it. And since I'm the paper's resident sob sister (by default, anyway), I got to spend a day and a half in the courthouse watching her weep into a hankie and pledge eternal love to her dear departed Lane.
The funny thing was...I believed her. Not that she hadn't offed him; it was pretty obvious that she had. But that, when all was said and done, she actually loved the guy. Go figure.
"You want to hear my theory?" I asked across a wobbly table in the Citizen Kane, the newshound's bar of choice. My drinking companion didn't answer, just kept staring down at the beer sloshing around in his mug. "Earth to Madison," I said after a minute.
"You want to hear my theory or what?"
As always, we were sitting in the window seat-a tiny clutch of three tables on a platform two grimy steps up from the rest of the bar. This gave Mad plenty of options for avoiding looking me in the eye. Besides his beloved beer mug, he could gaze at the gaggle of underage Bessler College sorority girls bellying up to the bar with their tummy shirts and fake IDs, the various wares (blown-glass bongs, used bell-bottoms, aromatherapy massage oil) on sale in the shops across the way, and any number of local freaks lounging on the Gabriel Green, our paved pedestrian mall.
"Christ," I said finally, "you are in a mood."
"What's your problem tonight, anyway?" He finally looked up from his liquid supper. "Ah. I get it. You're having an Emma relapse."
"Come on, Mad. Don't sweat it. It's only natural that you feel-"
"I do not."
"She only left a week ago. Nobody says you've gotta be over it by-"
"Why don't you tell me about your stupid theory?"
"Oh. It's about what happened with the Freemans."
"She poisoned him."
"No shit she poisoned him. I mean my theory about their marriage."
"You mean why they hated each other so much?"
I downed the rest of my gin and tonic and shook my head. "Nah, why they stayed together."
"Five kids'll do it."
"I know, but I kind of think that in a weird way, they made each other happy."
Come on, you know damn well they had the worst-"
"Yeah, but you know what I think? I think as long as they were together they could point at each other and say, 'If it weren't for you, I'd be happy, you jerk.' That way they could avoid the fact that they were just miserable people, right?"
"Since when are you the queen of psychobabble?"
"And since when are you the king of pain?" That shut him up. "So when is it going to the jury?"
"End of the week, looks like. I don't know why they even bother."
"Woman's entitled to be shit-canned by a jury of her peers."
"I meant why Shelley and her lawyer don't just plead out and throw her on the mercy of the court. I mean, have you checked out how the jury's looking at her? It's like she's the bastard stepchild of Lizzie Borden and Lady Macbeth."
"Aronofsky's still in no mood to take a plea. Why should he? He's got her dead to rights."
"Mrs. Freeman is a very sloppy murderer."
"No kidding. You wanna be a good girl and get me another beer?"
"If it'll improve your mood, you got it."
I made my way to the bar and tried to figure out if there was any way I was going to get Mad to open up. Doubtful; the man has always been something of a clam when it comes to personal matters. But truth be told, I was starting to worry about him. Jake Madison has always been a study in contradictions-an obsessive exerciser and consumer of low-fat foods who drinks like a giant mackerel-but usually his personal chakras are more or less in alignment. Recently, though, he's been tilting toward the depressive way more than usual. And yes, I know: According to the chemists, alcohol is a depressant. Mad, however, sees this as some sort of conspiracy of disinformation by losers who wish we still had Prohibition.
The happy-hour crowd had besieged the bar three deep, so it took me a while to get the goods. When I finally got back with the drinks and a bowl of crunchy rice snacks, I found Mad slumped over the table with his head in his oversize hands.
"You sure you're okay?"
"I don't wanna talk about it."
"I miss her too, you know."
"I don't wanna-"
"Sorry. Let's change the subject. What horrifying science thing are you working on?"
"Forget it." He started to get up. "I'm gonna go home and watch Shark Week."
"And waste this perfectly good Labatt's?" I wagged the mug at him, and some of the stinky stuff fell on my shoe. "Come on, don't leave me here all by myself. Cody's not getting here for, like, an hour."
He sank back down with a sigh. "One more drink."
"There's the spirit."
We sat there not talking for a while, me overdosing on salty snacks and Mad tapping his enormous fingers on the table until I wanted to spank him. Finally, he looked up at me and said, "Abrus precatorius."
"Huh?" "You asked me what science story I was working on. That's it."
"It's the poison Shelley used to kill Lane. Bill's got me doing a big take-out on it."
He cracked the first smile of the evening. "It's very nasty stuff. Makes you feel like your gut's full of steak knives and broken glass."
"Actually, Abrus precatorius is the plant the poison comes from. Commonly known as the rosary pea. Grows in the tropics. Not here."
"Unless you count the Benson University greenhouses."
"Aronofsky's point exactly. In case you care, the poison's a protein called abrin. Also a glycoside called abric acid."
I slouched in my seat and put my feet up on one of the two empty chairs. "Please don't tell me what a glycoside is."
"The plant's kinda pretty. Has bright red seeds with little black dots on the end. You eat 'em, you die."
"And Lane ate them."
"Not on purpose."
"Man," I said, "love drives you nuts."
"Your point being?"
"Well, Shelley Freeman seemed like a perfectly normal lady most of the time. But she and Lane just totally brought out the worst in each other, right? I mean, can you imagine being so pissed off at somebody you actually kill them?"
"I mean somebody you used to love." He shot me a look straight over his beer mug.
"I take it you haven't heard from her." He slammed the aforementioned mug onto the table.
"Christ, Bernier, which part of 'I don't wanna talk about it' don't you get?"
"Don't you think you'd feel better if you-"
"So how long do you think it's gonna be before your boyfriend moves back to Boston?"
I stuck my tongue out at him, which was the highest level of discourse I could come up with on short notice.
"Come on, Alex," he said with an icky tone in his voice, "don't you think you'd feel better if you-"
"You're not a very nice man."
He picked the mug back up gently, like he wanted it to know the slamming had been nothing personal. "Given."
"How about we change the subject?"
"Okay," I said. "How well did you know Freeman, anyway?"
"Professionally, too damn well. He was always on my ass about covering some big donor who endowed a new john in the biotech building, or some damn thing. Bought the Benson party line in a big way. Damn waste, if you ask me."
"You think he might've made a decent reporter?"
"I think he was a decent reporter. I've run through some of his old clips doing research. Guy could've gone places."
"But he stayed here."
"Staying here wasn't the problem. Flacking his ass off was."
"It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it, right?"
"Gimme a break."
"So, like, apart from the flackery and all that, what'd you think of Freeman as a guy?"
He shrugged his big bony shoulders. "I didn't really know him personally. Hardly ever came into the Citizen except to schmooze us up every once in a while. I guess the wife kept him on a short leash."
"You ever get a load of the two of them together?"
"Who in this town didn't?"
"You know, I heard one time she threw a plate of chicken curry at him in Thai Palace. Cracked a window and everything."
"Yeah, well, maybe he drove her to it."
"What does your boy Cody have to say? He think there's any chance she's getting off?"
"She ever admit to anything when he grilled her?"
"What grilling? Woman like that isn't dumb enough to talk to the cops. Cody barely got her into the interview room and she lawyered up."
"Not," said a very hunky voice off to my left, "that I wouldn't have gotten her to cop to it if I'd had the chance."
I turned around and there was Cody, all green eyes and red hair and muscles. Yum. "You're early, Detective."
He leaned down and pecked me on the lips. Then he deposited himself in the empty chair between me and Mad, took off his jacket, and smacked his hands together. "You people call this spring?"
I pecked him back. "And you call yourself a Yankee?"
"We had spring in Boston. This is not spring."
"Little hail never hurt anybody."
"I got the next round," Mad said, and took off toward the bar.
Cody watched him go, then gave my knee a little squeeze. "What's eating him?"
I wrapped my hands around his and rubbed for warmth, like they taught me in the Brownies. "Emma thing."
"Ah. Probably best if we lay off the..."
"Couple stuff. Yeah."
"She coming back anytime soon?"
"Doesn't look like it."
"You men sure as hell stick together." He cocked an eyebrow my way. "Mad was just expressing a similar sentiment about Lane Freeman."
"Well, he is dead, you know."
"He meant vis-à-vis his miserable marriage."
"Oh. Poor guy."
"From what I saw, he gave as good as he got."
"Except that she's still breathing."
"Except for that, yeah."
I checked to make sure Mad wasn't within viewing distance, then gave Cody a respectable kiss. The man was definitely worth kissing, what with his perfect bod and great laugh and manly-but-not- macho demeanor-all of which make me overlook the fact that in a previous incarnation he was a goddamn navy SEAL.
And, okay...Though I know a ban-the-bomb peacenik like me should be above such things, I gotta admit the Officer and a Gentleman thing is pretty damn sexy. We've been going out a year-for me, this qualifies as several consecutive lifetimes-and I've yet to develop the ability to keep my hands to myself. He doesn't seem to consider this a character flaw.
"You know," I said when I was done assaulting him, "you looked awful cute in court today. What were you doing there, anyway?" Again with the eyebrow. "And no, this is not going to wind up in the Monitor tomorrow."
"In that case...Aronofsky needed some last-minute stuff for his cross. Nothing too exciting. Hey, by the way, were you in court when he demolished Shelley's tox guy?"
"Mad covered it. Said it was quite the scene. Collier tried to salvage it on redirect, but I hear it was pretty pathetic."
"How's he doing, anyhow?"
"Collier? Not too damn-"
"Oh. Honestly, he's kind of freakish at the moment. I've never seen him this upset over a girl before. Half the time he's crying in his beer, or else, poof, he's just off someplace. But then a couple days ago he was totally manic, talking a mile a minute and pacing like crazy. If I didn't know better, I would've thought he was on something."
"You think he might be?"
"Mad? No way. He does alcohol and he does caffeine. The problem is he does them in excessive quantities every once in a while."
"So you really think he and Emma are over for good?"
"Probably. I mean, London's pretty damn far away. Plus which, I'm kind of worried she maybe got back with her ex. He was calling a lot the past couple of months."
"And I take it that's not good news?"
"Alcoholic M.D. Real piece of work, from what she told me."
"Yeah, I know what you're gonna say. Change doctor to reporter, and you've pretty much got Mad."
"Not that I don't like the guy..."
"But he can be a real piece of work."
"And you really think she's gone back to her ex?"
"She told me a while ago she never really got him out of her system. And like I was just saying to Mad, love makes you do some crazy shit."
"Sometimes in a good way."
"Tell that," I said, "to Lane Freeman.Copyright © 2002 by Beth Saulnier
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)
An eccentric upstate New York college town, Gabriel is traditionally a hotbed of debate, activism, and academic infighting. But, not even Alex and her jaded coworkers on the Gabriel Monitor have ever seen anything like the intense controversy over so-called "Frankenfoods"genetically engineered crops that some believe will wipe out world hunger and others decry as science gone mad. Suddenly Benson University and Gabriel are a battleground, with both sides willing to stop at nothing for their cause. And when Alex discovers charismatic, driven, plant science professor Kate Barnett beaten to death in her lab, the journalist finds suspects sprouting from every corner of the campus.
With the Monitor's ace science writer Jake Madison out of commission after a perplexing overdose and Alex's policeman boyfriend Brian Cody incommunicado thanks to FBI orders, Alex must solve the deadly mystery on her own. Soon crossing her path is a host of shady characters, including: several of Kate's jealous colleagues; a manipulative protest leader; an elusive grad student accusing the professor of an unthinkable academic crime; and Kate's own troubled son, a refugee adopted from Ethiopia.
Alex's search for the truth will lead her along the ever-shifting line between dedication and ambition, altruism and greed, painful truth and deadly lies...and to a dangerous endgame against a ruthless killer who will weed out anything that stands in the wayincluding an inconveniently tenacious reporter.
and irreverent, BAD SEED features a unique and unforgettable contemporary
detective in a riveting tale about the hidden limits of science and ideals,
and the deeper mysteries of the human heart.
"Alex, a better dresser than [Janet Evanovich's] Stephanie Plum and maybe a tad funnier, is delightful. And Saulnier, an editor at Cornell Magazine, can sashay her around a newsroom and a college campus with the best of them." - Kirkus (starred review)
"...Confirms [Alex's] reputation as a Gen-X sleuth to watch.... A funny, smart, and refreshingly human heroine and a strong sense of place should make this one a hit." -- Booklist
Saulnier is a reporter, writer, and editor living in Ithaca, NY. She
was born in North Adams, MA, went to high school (Middlesex School) in
Concord, MA, and graduated from Vassar College in 1990 with a BA in French
and Spanish. At Vassar, she was editor-in-chief of the student paper.
She spent exactly three weeks in graduate school at Cornell University
(in Communications) before fleeing back to journalism; she's spent a total
of five years as a newspaper reporter and editor in Massachusetts and