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WATCH MOMMY DIE
By MICHAEL BENSON
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Michael Benson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMR. HYDE
South Carolina, July 2004. The South Carolina Lowcountry shore. Stephen Christopher Stanko was bespectacled, impeccably neat, thirty-six years old, mild-mannered, white—and only just out of prison. Fresh to the outside—having just served eight years of a ten-year sentence for kidnapping, fraud, and breach of trust—he squinted in the strong summer sunshine.
Sure, his morning-fresh freedom gave him a fish-out-of-water feeling—but not as bad as most ex-cons, he figured. He'd shed his prison skin and emerged from his squalid surroundings into the crisp air of freedom with that ol' Stanko sangfroid intact.
He had to pat himself on the back. He had chameleon skills, and could be just what anyone wanted him to be. Plus, he'd actually accomplished something in prison. That put him in—what?—the 99.9 percentile of ex-cons!
He entered prison a normal civilian and was released a published author.
With a pleasure that bordered on the autoerotic, he enjoyed stroking his own ego. Have to go away for a few years? Boom, start a career. He'd turned lemon into lemonade. Most guys got out and had nothing better to look forward to than manual labor. He had bigger plans. Much bigger. He'd used prison as a tool for upward mobility. It was proof of what a genius he was. Not only had he created a product that would generate income, he'd done some serious planning as well. He knew how to get over in modern society.
Still, even on geniuses such as himself, prison took its toll. It cut away at a man like a thousand small torturous cuts. His confidence was rendered porous by prison. Deep down, gnawing like a rat on the inside of a bedroom wall, was his insecurity. He worried that he'd lost his touch, that years behind bars had institutionalized him.
Ah, but it was all coming back to him—life without bars. Easy as pulling a nickel out of a child's ear. All he had to do was conjure the cheery illusion of truthfulness and sincerity and he'd be sure to succeed. You had to know just how much of the truth to mix in, and he had the knack.
Great webs of deceit he could weave—and almost every dewy silver strand was based on a verifiable fact. Some people couldn't lie for five minutes without betraying themselves. Stanko could go for weeks.
While serving the last days of his sentence, he'd arranged for his first few days of freedom. To help him, he'd recruited the goodwill of a woman he called "Hummer," the mom of a guy in Stanko's cell block. When he first got out, he called Hummer and she "loaned" him money for a motel so he'd have a roof over his head.
Hummer came in handy—for a little while, anyway. He knew that she was not a bottomless well, however. Pretty soon he was going to have to rely on his charm for food and shelter.
Existing as an ex-con can be a tricky business. Stanko coped by speaking about it, but only in positive terms. It was a neurolinguistic technique, a sleight of speech, like hiding something in plain sight. He hoped if he spoke openly and matter-of-factly about prison, others would think it matter-of-fact.
The story of his crimes, as he told it, was always framed as the prelude to revelation and epiphany. Prison gave him a chance to find himself, to discover his true value. And that was considerable. Just ask his publisher.
When he chose to talk about "going away," Stanko liked to paint his criminal history as white-collar crapola. No big deal. A freakin' railroad job. He'd admit, maybe, that he was a bit of a bs artist. But there was nothing un-American about that—it was all part of getting ahead.
But he never mentioned his kidnapping conviction, the details of which could seep right into a person's nightmares. Anyone with a dollop of decency would deem them disturbing—and Stanko was hip enough to know he had to keep them secret.
And that part of his personality, the one that came out when he was angry and with a woman, must never emerge again. That was a rule. If he had a fatal flaw, that was it. Put that guy in the recesses of the mind and keep him there. When he did think about it, Stanko realized he was as a man stricken with lycanthropy, like the Wolfman, Lawrence Talbot, fearing the rise of the full moon would transform him into a bloodthirsty beast, like Dr. Jekyll, keeping Mr. Hyde on the down low. A monster that did very bad things—did them ecstatically—lived inside Stanko. Then it went away, leaving Stanko to endure the soul-crushing consequences.
Thinking about it made it worse for him. The idea was to sublimate the urge, push it deep, deep inside and hold it there. It was a constant struggle—like holding a balloon underwater.
An ex-con turned literati darling once described incarceration as living "in the belly of the beast." And when you were released—Stanko thought, pushing the metaphor—you came out the beast's ass. No bad men were cured in prison, Stanko knew. They just got worse, until they turned to complete shit.
Now, the Hummer ticket cashed in and spent—at least for the time being—Stanko headed for the Myrtle Beach area. Where better in the summer?
WELCOME TO THE GRAND STRAND the sign said.
During the first weeks of his freedom, he stayed in a number of rooms, all cheap—the landladies (there were never landlords) mostly unpaid. He looked for a job, but it was tough for a quality guy like himself to face the rejection. One look of suspicion or distaste from a prospective employer and his mood was shot the rest of the day. He got so mad.
He needed something to do with his days; so he began work on his research, maybe get an outline started for his latest literary creation. All he needed was a blank notebook, a cheap ballpoint, and a library with a pretty librarian.
Chapter TwoTHE LIBRARIAN AND HER DAUGHTER
Stephen Stanko took up his research at the Horry County Memorial Library–Socastee Branch. It was a good library, with many books on subjects that interested him. Happily for Stanko, it fit the second criteria as well. The librarian was gorgeous! A raven-haired beauty.
"I'm Stephen Stanko, the author," he said to her.
"Laura Ling, pleased to meet you," she replied. (Not to be confused with the Laura Ling who was the sister of TV personality Lisa Ling, who was held captive for a time in North Korea.)
Stanko asked her where she was from.
Dallas, Texas, born and raised, she said, her inflection emphasizing a musical Southwestern drawl. Stanko kept asking questions and she answered. She was born Laura Elizabeth Hudson. Her mother was Sue McKee Wilson Hudson. Dad, Earl Pierce Hudson, died too young. There was something they had in common, they both completely rocked high school. Laura was the BGOC—"big gal on campus"—at North Garland High. She had range. A member of the Beta Club ("Me too," Stanko said, telling the truth) and vice president of the student council, she was inducted into the National Honor Society and was a nominee for Miss North Garland. Good-looking, brains, and politically savvy, too—a triple-threat gal, laugh out loud.
After high school, Laura went to Texas A&M University, where, an honor roll student, she majored in English. She later earned a master's in library science at the University of South Carolina.
After school she married Chris Ling and had three children: two sons and the youngest, a pretty daughter, Penelope, who was called Penny (pseudonym). When they divorced, the boys lived with their dad, Ling moved into a place in Murrells Inlet, with her daughter, and she took a job as a reference librarian at the Socastee Public Library, near Myrtle Beach.
The library was modern and designed to please the eye, a one-story brick building, with its own parking lot and a semicircular driveway that allowed cars to drop library-goers right out front. Plus, a roof extended out over the driveway in front of the main entrance, so those entering and leaving weren't exposed to rain or intense sun.
Out front by the road was a brick structure that existed only as a mounting surface for the sign. At the top was the county emblem, which reminded passersby that this was THE INDEPENDENCE REPUBLIC. Below that were the street number and the name of the library. In front of the brick sign, a spotlight protruded from the finely manicured lawn, so the words remained legible after dark.
Inside, Ling proved herself a master librarian. For any serious researcher, Ling was perfect to befriend. It wasn't that her knowledge of any subject was exhaustive. She might not have known a fact, but she knew where to look it up. Her responsibilities at the library grew, and one of the extracurricular activities she signed up for was teaching senior citizens how to use a computer.
Upon first meeting, Laura Ling was attracted to the seemingly harmless Stephen Stanko. She found his intelligence and quiet confidence tremendously appealing. And he was good-looking to boot.
He didn't hide being an ex-con. White-collar crimes, he always added. He'd learned his lesson and changed his ways. Seen the light. Now he had a cause.
One of the first questions she asked him was "Author?" Yes, he replied enthusiastically. He'd written a book in prison, and it had been published—a fact that Laura Ling wasted no time verifying. There it was, on her computer screen. His book was a call for prison reform and modernized methods of rehabilitation. Ling was so impressed. As far as she knew, he was the first published author to walk into her library, which, after all, was a branch. Sure, he was an ex-con. That was secondary.
Yeah, one book published, Stanko boasted, but he'd written several. In addition to his scholarly work, he also had two novels and an autobiography in the can. He was shopping the autobiography around, figured that would be the next to be published.
He was a smart guy, maybe an intellectual, too smart to be a criminal. And now that he was free at last, he couldn't have seemed more rehabilitated.
She ordered a copy of his book for her library's shelves and told Stanko to consider her library his library. He had access to all of the books, not just in the branch, but in the entire system. If he wanted a book and couldn't find it on the shelf, they could go together to the county library system's online catalog. The library had subscription-based databases for research in newspapers, magazines, and journals published from the mid-1980s on. There was a free New York Times archive on the Web, but it only included before 1922 and after 1987. Otherwise, you had to pay a fee. After years of dealing with clumsy microfiche, the Horry County libraries now had the much-easier-to-use microfilm for its periodical archives. And, of course, he would have access to the Internet. He had come to the right place, she said. Socastee was a library where he could do all of his research and see a friendly face at the same time.
Through Ling, Stanko made another friend, seventy-four-year-old Henry Lee Turner. Turner had taken one of Ling's computer classes, held at the library. Later, when he had computer problems, he called Ling and she came over to his house to help him, bringing Stanko with her.
Ling was well loved by her colleagues. She went the extra mile to help people. Turner was an aging veteran, who lived in a mobile home and loved to fish. For a con man, they were the perfect marks.
Laura Ling urged Stephen Stanko to be ambitious. In September, he sent a proposal for a grant to the National Institute of Justice to work with underprivileged children. His idea was sort of a Scared Straight program, during which he would make those tough street kids aware that illegal behavior had extremely unpleasant consequences.
He never heard back. An ex-con who wanted to work with kids! How many red flags did that raise?
Ling learned about, but was untroubled by, the terms of Stanko's probation. He'd been released a year and a half early with the caveat that he leave his residence only for work or for church. Any other outing had to be approved in advance by his probation officer.
Laura eagerly introduced Stanko to her family, confident of the impression he would make. And she was right. They thought him fine. Victoria Loy, Laura's sister, remembered him as "pleasant and solicitous." She recalled an attentive man who focused on Laura and made her feel special. And he couldn't have seemed more normal. If there was anything off-putting about the new boyfriend, Victoria didn't pick up on it. She didn't know what he was like before prison, but he seemed like a real nice guy after it. And Victoria remembered how happy Laura was, and how warm and good it felt to see her that way. She had a new handsome boyfriend, with smarts and charm, a published author who looked good either in a suit or a golf shirt! Whew. Laura was happier than she had been in a long time—and that made her friends and relatives happy.
Laura's home was close to the corner of Murrells Inlet Road and Mary Lou Avenue, about three hundred yards, the length of a short par 4, from the water's edge. She brought Stanko home to meet her daughter during October 2004, on what happened to be pretty Penny's fifteenth birthday.
Penny remembered well the occasion of Stanko's first visit. She could tell he wanted the evening to go well. He was on his very best behavior—not that he wasn't always. But on this occasion, he was almost nervous, because his hopes were so high.
And, more important, as far as the teenager was concerned, her mother was so happy. She was beaming with joy, radiating happiness, when Stanko was at her side.
That made Penny happy—and she approved of Stanko, too. He knew stuff, could make her laugh, and seemed like the "all-around great boyfriend."
Penny remembered saying some things that became really, really ironic, when she looked back on it. After Stanko's visit on her birthday, she had lightheartedly needled her mother.
"Gee, Mom, thanks for bringing home an ex-con," Penny had said. But she was just kidding. She thought Stephen seemed like "a great guy, without a great past."
The teenager heard Stephen talk about his future in such hopeful terms. He wanted a new start on life, a new beginning. Her mom, who normally enjoyed helping people, looked at that as "an opportunity." She wanted to help him begin anew.
After knowing her for two months, Stanko told Laura that he was being evicted from his apartment. Was it okay if he moved in with her? Laura said she'd have to get the approval of Penny.
Stanko said, "Of course," and the matter was presented to the teenager. Penny, finding joy in her mother's happiness, responded, "Sure, why not?"
Penny and Stanko even spent some quality alone time. He helped her build a birdhouse. Taught her how to drive a car with a stick shift. Everything was moving along nicely, Stanko thought.
The Lings lived in an oil-painting-worthy village of Murrells Inlet, another picture postcard from South Caro lina's Lowcountry. Best known for its fishing, the village was a sensual delight. Scenic, for sure, but it also felt, smelled, and sounded good. In the mornings, there was the glorious cacophony of the feeding gulls in the inlet. You could watch them, diving into the water, poking their sharp little beaks into the pluff mud, the dark soft mud in the marshes—in search of tasty morsels. Murrells Inlet tasted good also. Its restaurants, thirty of them, were seafood places mostly, of course, but some ethnic entries as well to offer variety, and they were considered the best around. There was also a seafood market for do-it-yourself chefs. Visitors who wanted to go to sea and catch their meal could easily charter a boat from an appropriately briny captain—or rent a canoe or kayak and piddle-paddle at a leisurely pace in the inlet. Plus, there were potentially romantic strolls through Brookgreen Gardens, the world's largest outdoor sculpture garden, aromatherapy provided by the bountiful magnolias and azaleas. And, as was true of the entire Myrtle Beach area, there was plenty of golf. It was a great place to live—a great place to fall in love.
Excerpted from WATCH MOMMY DIE by MICHAEL BENSON Copyright © 2011 by Michael Benson. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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