Bad Seed (Alex Bernier Series #4)by Beth Saulnier
Journalist Alex Bernier has her hands full investigating a breaking story for the Gabriel Monitor. A legion of activists has besieged Benson University to protest re-search on genetically engineered food. The debate threatens to rip the town in half, as people in favor of using bioengineering face off against those who oppose the technology at any cost. When Kate Barnett, a charismatic plant science professor and avid proponent of genetic engineering, is found beaten to death in her lab, the activists are the number one suspects. But is it really such an open-and-shut case? What about Barnett's colleagues, envious of her fame and grant money? Her troubled son, who has been in and out of jail? Or the grad student who accused Barnett of stealing her ideas? As Alex searches for the truth, she discovers that her best friend, hard-drinking science reporter Jake Madison, is out of commission after an overdose everyone assumes was self-inflicted-everyone except Alex.
Author Biography: A graduate of Vassar College, Saulnier is an associate editor and staff writer for Cornell Magazine, a movie reviewer for the Ithaca Journal, and a film commentator on local television. Beth Saulnier lives in Ithaca, New York.
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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?" "Not particularly."
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." "Piss off."
"What's your problem tonight, anyway?" He finally looked up from his liquid supper. "Ah. I get it. You're having an Emma relapse." "Am not." "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-" "What theory?" "Huh?" "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." "Oh." "It's the poison Shelley used to kill Lane. Bill's got me doing a big take-out on it." "And?"
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."
"Lovely image." "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?"
"Sure." "I mean somebody you used to love." He shot me a look straight over his beer mug. "Sure." "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?" "Deal."
"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." "Poor guy."
"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?" "Nope."
"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." "Poor guy."
"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-ý-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-" "Madison."
"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." "Well..."
"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 (c) 2002 by Beth Saulnier
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The book centers around the issue of genetic engineering and has a number of strenghts ¿ snappy, crisp dialogue, one of the most intriguing characters in mystery fiction and a likable protagonist. Alas, there are a number of flaws which almost undercut the story, and a plot that doesn't quiet bare up under scrutiny. Benson University is center of a 'frankfenfood' controversy when reporter Alex Bernier discovers professor Kate Barnett clubbed to death in her lab. An earlier murder (and conviction) might tie into the case and there are two other attempted murders (including of Alex) during the novel. Ms. Saulnier can carry a story. Much of the newsroom chatter is realistic and the dialogue is often witty. (Although the author gets carried away with some four letter words. Yes, some reporters use them but at times they undercut the geniune funny lines and merely sounded dumb. There are a number of surprising ¿ and for the most part ¿ believable plot twists. Still, some of the newsroom activity and a few plot devices are, frankly, dumb. A minor one is Alex and another reporter have to share a hotel room due to the cheapness of the newspaper. (Nowadays, the paper would face a sexual harassment suit.) A more important flaw is Alex and fellow reporter Madison 'blackmail' another reporter for help in the case. He's the police reporter and doesn't like to share. A prior sequence has Alex deciding to help on the murder investigation ¿ although it's not her beat ¿ after a drinking bout. Both are not realistic, and even stupid. For a high profile murder such as this, a newspaper would throw much of their staff on the story. They would not trust it to a ROOKIE police reporter. Reporters would be swarming over the university, the police station and tracking down the background of anyone connected with the case. The ME would probablly be holding daily sessions on how the stories were progressing. (Yes, I've been on such sessions, so maybe I'm being picky.) A second flaw is Saulnier makes sure the plot moves along by having characters drop, if not dead, then at least sickened by poison. One major problem with this is neither character knows anything when they're poisoned. Thre is no reason to try to kill them. Considering the assailant is not stupid, the poisonings are merely a plot device. (Used by many mystery writers to be sure, but still phony) The other problem is the poison used on Alex would point like a huge red neon arrow to the killers. While getting relentless logical, there are fiscal details about the first murder in the book that did not come out at the trial of the defendant, and you wonder why. She has the money to hire a good attorney and the victim was living beyond his means. The reason again is it's better for this plot that somehow the police, the district attorney and the defense lawyer overlooked it. That doesn't really make sense. If something that huge is overlooked, the author needs an explanation why. As for the climax, readers will have to decide whether they buy all details. I will, but just barely. There are some other pluses in the book - Alex's scenes with her boyfriend, the description of a activist who wants to save the world but is vicious to his friends. It's a realistic portrayal of a activist who wants to save humanity but is cruel to fellow humans. And Professor Barnett is, even in death, one of the most fascinating characters in recent, or even not-so-recent fiction. It's a good read and recommended, but no where near the five star level.
A complex and involving plot line; an engaging protagonist; and an atmospheric setting. The fourth book in the Alex Bernier series, and the first in hardcover, brings the sharp and irrevent reporter into harm's way as she tries to solve two bombings and a brutal death on the local college campus. She pits her investigative skills, and those of her newpaper cohorts, against a group of shadowy bioterrorists. Filled with great characters, snappy writing, and a compelling story. Couldn't put it down. A great sequel to 'Reliable Sources,' 'Distemper,' and 'The Fourth Wall,' although it can stand alone. A new, young writer to watch.
Benson University in upstate Gabriel, New York is in the midst of a major debate over genetically engineered foods. One side of the heated controversy sees this as a means to feed the world population and end the Malthus effect. On the other side, opponents believe science is running amuck Dr. Frankenstein style destroying future generations of third world people. When the Gabriel Monitor science reporter Jake ¿Mad¿ Madison mixes alcohol and prescription drugs to mend a broken heart, he lands in the hospital, which leaves Alex Bernier to report on the food controversy. Brilliant botanist Dr. Kate Barnett leads the genetic food experiments, but is soon found murdered in her laboratory. Alex investigates the homicide looking at the activities of the Don't Break the Food Chain opposition as well as Kate¿s scientific cronies knowing that either side could hide a murdered amidst their crowd. BAD SEED is a good, make that excellent, journalistic investigative tale that uses modern scientific debate as a mechanism to set up the motive for a homicide. The story line is fast paced, but clearly belongs to Gen Xer Alex whose retorts provide the audience with humor even as she takes her inquiries quite seriously. Beth Saulnier has written a wonderful novel that is part of a strong series worth reading by fans of investigative tales. Harriet Klausner