The term “sting operation” comes from law enforcement, where it means a deceptive situation set up to catch a person committing a crime. That’s how I’m using it in this week’s chapter, except that the Belles’ detective skills are less than expert. In real life, sting operations in cases of serial rape are not unknown, but I suspect they are used less often than for other types of crime.
Of course I can’t present a chapter called “The Sting” without mentioning the film of that name and its Beautiful Men…
30. The Sting
Saturday night was the meetup at Tina’s house. It was time for the sting. Tina had obsessed all week about whether the suspect men would actually show up, since her place was not conveniently located downtown, and nobody had been there before.
“As long as at least one of them comes, it’s worth a shot,” said Ellen. She and the other women had arrived early at Tina’s house, a spacious bungalow. The upstairs attic space still held Bryan’s study and architecture books. Over Tina’s fireplace was a small shrine to Bryan, with pictures, mementos, and even a few candles. Although not a tall man, but he had been handsome, with wavy blond hair and slate blue eyes.
Tina had decreed a Tiki theme for the evening, and Ellen suspected it was at the urging of Val, who wanted to exercise her bartending skills on some complicated tropical drinks. Campy lights in the shape of Easter Island heads and flamingos were strung around the living room and kitchen. A stack of artificial flower leis lay on the countertop, ready for use, and Val was busily mixing a pitcher of zombies and another of mai tais. Ellen had brought some beef satay on individual sticks, and a platter of Maylay coconut shrimp kabobs, which she set down next to a hollowed-out watermelon full of tropical fruit.
“Now, tell me what to do,” she said to the rest of them. “How much should I drink? And should I try to be seductive?” She felt self-conscious about her clothing. On Kim’s advice she had worn the shortest skirt she owned, a frothy silk confection in black printed with tiny flowers. It hit about four inches above the knee. With this she paired low-heeled sandals, and a pink sleeveless top. The outfit wasn’t especially immodest, but now, as the short hem of the skirt swirled about her thighs, she felt vulnerable and exposed.
“You’re a rotten actor,” said Kim, “but not to worry, darling. To achieve verisimilitude, all you need do is go a couple of drinks beyond your usual limit. Then when it’s time to pass out, around midnight, just let yourself slump and close your eyes.”
“Yes, we’ll take care of the rest,” said Emily. “I don’t think you should overact. Just circulate and smile at all of them, maybe touch them on the arm and look into their eyes.”
“Here you go,” said Val, handing her a zombie garnished with an orange slice and a maraschino cherry. “This’ll do the trick. That’s how it got its name.” Afraid to ask the ingredients, Ellen took a generous sip of the concoction, a swirling vortex of orange, yellow and blue in a tall tulip glass. It was sweet and fruity, not to her taste, but at least it went down easy. The high alcohol content was hardly noticeable. Almost immediately, the cold feeling in the pit of her stomach was replaced by a slight warmth, and she felt her nervous tension begin to dissipate.
They heard the sound of a car pulling up outside. “That’s my cue to disappear,” said Emily. “I have to spend the whole party in the guest room, with no bathroom breaks! Good thing I brought my phone. It has my audiobook of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” She turned to Ellen. “Just before midnight I’ll get in the closet, so you won’t see me when they bring you in. But I’ll be watching. And look what I’ve got!” She held out a rape whistle and a can of Cold Steel Inferno.
“If one of them comes in, I’ll call out after it’s clear what he’s up to,” said Ellen. “There’s always a chance that someone could open the door by mistake. And watch it with that pepper spray. I don’t want a face full of habanero.” Emily disappeared down the hall just as Tina went to open the door to Charlie, who arrived in a pair of shorts and an undershirt, over which he wore a grass skirt and a coconut bra. Shrieking in delight, Tina piled three leis over his head.
Angus came to sit beside Ellen, stretching his arm comfortably along the back of the sofa. “Have ye seen Emily tonight?” he asked.
“I’m afraid she can’t come. She said she has the norovirus.”
“Oh.” His face fell so comically that Ellen laughed. Seeing her reaction, he rallied. “But I’ve nowt to complain of. Did anyone ever tell ye what lovely legs ye have, Ellen?”
“Yes, once.” She smiled, thinking of Hugh’s comment about her “gams.”
“What’s that ghastly drink ye’ve got?” He pointed to her half-empty glass.
“A zombie.” Angus made a face and lifted his bottle of beer as if in a toast. “If that’s yer pleasure. I’ll stick with mah ale, for all ye serve it too damned cold.”
“Have you noticed that zombies are invading everything these days?” asked Ellen. “Emily said she’s reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The theaters are full of zombie movies.”
“Yeah, and I just went to a bride’s party where they had male strippers dressed as zombies,” said Val, who was standing beside them with Gerry the Drummer.
“Oh, that’s horrible!” exclaimed Ellen. “What could possibly be sexy about a zombie?”
“Yeah,” said Gerry the Drummer. “He’s probably got parts falling off right and left.”
“Not to mention center,” put in Val.
The others laughed at this, but Angus looked distracted, as though he was thinking about something else. Suddenly he said, “Emily’s ill, ye say? Has she got everything she needs?”
“Yes, she’ll be fine,” said Ellen. “The virus is unpleasant but it usually doesn’t last long.”
“Maybe I’d better call her to see how she’s farin’, puir wee mite.” Ellen started, nearly choking on her drink, and only then remembered that Emily had her phone with her in the guest room. Hoping that the ringer was set to vibrate, she said, “I’m sure she’d appreciate that.”
More people were crowding into the living room now, and the noise of conversation was beginning to drown out the exotica lounge playlist that Tina had chosen. Angus pulled out his phone and headed toward the dining room to make his call. Then Ellen spotted Hugh, who had dispensed with his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He was loading a plate high with her satay and shrimp.
“Zombies are gross, but vampires are sexy,” asserted Val.
“That’s certainly the case in popular culture,” agreed Ellen. “Vampires have been sanitized. Now they drink synthetic blood, or only take blood from animals, which lets women fantasize about them without a moral conflict. But they used to be symbolic of evil. If you read the original Dracula, he’s not particularly attractive.”
“No, but even Dracula is kind of sexy, in a creepy way,” replied Val.
“Why are women so gaga over vampires?” asked Gerry the Drummer. “I don’t get it.”
“Both sexes find danger exciting,” said Ellen. “What about the femme fatale?”
“That’s different,” repied Hugh, sitting down with his food in the armchair opposite Ellen. “A man follows a femme fatale to his own destruction. Dracula didn’t give his victims a choice. Why should that be appealing?” He met Ellen’s gaze, and then his eyes dropped to her exposed feet and legs. She could feel the heat of his regard, and self-consciously wondered how much of her thighs was visible. She put down her drink and adjusted her skirt, which had ridden up when she sat down.
“Most women enjoy the fantasy of being overpowered,” said Kim to Hugh. “But only when they’ve pre-approved the partner and the scenario.”
“But how are we supposed to know what you approve?” said Jaime, before Hugh could answer. “We’re not mind readers. If we’re not aggressive enough, you’re unhappy. But if we get too aggressive, you cry rape.” Ellen and Kim exchanged a look.
“It’s a matter of trust between partners who know each other well,” answered Kim coolly. “If you have to ask, it means you have to ask.”
“That’s right,” said Hector. “A man who knows what he’s doing can read the signs. In fact–”
“The satay is incredible. Did you make this, Ellen?” The speaker was Hugh, and she had the feeling that his interruption of Hector was deliberate. His plate, heavily laden a couple of moments before, was empty, and he was getting to his feet. She nodded, and followed him to the kitchen counter, where he finished off the rest of the satay, and she refilled her zombie.
“I’m going to step out for a smoke,” he said.
“Does that mean you want to be alone?”
“No.” He motioned for her to precede him into the dining room, and opened the glass doors leading to a deck. Hugh drew a cigarette case and lighter from his pocket, while Ellen nursed her zombie. They stood silently at the railing, looking out into the yard. Through the darkness, Ellen made out a small, unkempt garden with a tiny pond and some tall ornamental grasses that served as a barrier between Tina’s yard and the backdoor neighbor.
“This is lovely,” she said. “I live in town now, and I miss my old garden.” Suddenly an eerie greenish light flashed across the grasses. An answering light appeared, streaking across the yard like a tiny yellow-green meteor.
“The first fireflies of the season!” exclaimed Ellen. “That’s another of the things I gave up when I moved downtown. Our house in Haddonfield had them too, and before that, in Columbus.”
“I’ve always lived in cities,” replied Hugh. “I’m not sure I’ve seen fireflies before. They glow to attract mates, don’t they?”
“Yes. But they glow even in the egg, and the larvae are glowworms. Once they reproduce, they die. Their adult lives are measured in days.”
He took a final drag on his cigarette and slowly exhaled, the smoke rising around his head in the calm night air. “That’s a pithy message, isn’t it? As Owen would say, carpe diem.”
“Yes,” she said, thinking, life is short. Was it a waste of her precious time, hanging out with this group? A silence hung between them.
Hugh didn’t look at her but out at the yard, where the fireflies were playing. “I have a confession to make.”
Even though she was quite intoxicated, a chill trickled down Ellen’s spine. She put one hand on the railing to steady herself. “What is it?”
“When I told you I had a tendency toward depression, I was understating the case. It’s more like a constant struggle.”
She almost sagged with relief. Then her mind turned to what he was trying to tell her. “That must be terrible for you. Do you take medication?”
“Not unless it gets unmanageable. I can’t work while I’m on meds. I can still draw, but what comes out is never right. Ellen, I spent six months in the loony bin. They let me out, and I relapsed. Another three months. In the bin.”
“You mean the hospital. You shouldn’t call it a loony bin. It’s disrespectful to the other patients there, and to yourself.”
She remained silent, absorbing what he had just told her. He allowed her to think it through. Finally she said, “How long ago was that?”
“Eight years ago. After my divorce.”
“Are you still sad? About the divorce?”
“No.” Ellen turned to face Hugh and saw that he had his little sketchbook in hand and was drawing in it by the light of the dining room behind them. “As a matter of fact, I’ve been happy lately. It’s like visiting a foreign country. It feels so strange that I’m not even sure I like it.”
“You can get used to it, Hugh. I hope you do.” Trying to set her glass on the railing, she nearly missed.
“You’ve had too much again. What’s that disgusting brew, anyway?”
“I’m not sure,” she replied. “Rum, curaçao, maybe some brandy? I haven’t eaten anything. Maybe I’d better go see what’s left.” Seeing his reaction to this, she added, “Don’t look so gloomy! I can always eat Kim’s sweet and sour meatballs. And besides, I’m flattered that you like my cooking.”
She took her drink inside and fixed a plate of food for herself, pondering Hugh’s confession and what it might mean. She felt sad for him, but not very surprised. It was true that his illness made him different; she could see how it had shaped his personality. But there was far more to Hugh than his illness.
Tina had turned up the music and switched to a more danceable Afro-Cuban jazz channel on Pandora. Ellen ate and drank as she watched the dancing. She was halfway through her second zombie now.
“Come on, Ellen!” Jaime took her hand, and she tried to remember the dance steps from Brasília, with only partial success. Someone put a lei around her neck, and she cha-cha’d with a boisterous Charlie, who seemed to be nearly as drunk as she was. Then Hector took her gracefully into his arms, and moved her about the floor. Dancing with him was almost effortless, and she felt she was floating on a cloud, until suddenly she stumbled and fell against him. “Easy, Elena,” he said. “Are you tired, mi querida? Would you like to sit down?” He led her back to the couch, where she gratefully sank down to watch the action. I’m going to have one hell of a hangover tomorrow, she thought, picking up her glass philosophically.
It was eleven-thirty. Charlie, Tina and Val had danced the limbo beneath a broom handle, while Kim and Owen sat on the sofa next to Ellen, quietly talking. Angus had disappeared, and Hector and Jaime were polishing off what little remained of the food. Tina had been forced to supplement the tropical menu with potato chips, Ritz crackers and bars of cheddar and monterey jack cheese, cut into cubes. As soon as Ellen’s glass was emptied, Val quietly brought her a refill, the last of the big pitcher of zombies. Hugh was back in his chair opposite, and she could feel his eyes boring into her as she resolutely sipped the drink.
Jaime sat on the floor between Ellen and Hugh, picking lazily at the cheese cubes and clutching a Corona. With the exception of Charlie, all the men in attendance had given the Tiki drinks a wide berth. Tina’s generous supply of beer was nearly exhausted. Jaime turned his head to stare at Ellen’s legs for a few contemplative moments, and then said to the room in general, “What does a woman want?”
“Ah, the great question that has never been answered, even by Doctor Freud,” said Hector jovially.
“Too bad Emily’s not here,” said Val with a mischievous smile. “I have a feeling she could answer that.” Kim gave her a warning look.
“There is no single answer to that question,” said Ellen. “Just as no two women are alike.” Speaking demanded an extra effort, to ensure that she didn’t slur her speech. “But we could create a… taxonomy of masculinity. All the… archetypes that women desire.”
“The tortured Byronic hero,” said Kim. “Like Emily’s favorite, Mr. Rochester.”
“Mr. Darcy,” suggested Tina. “The parfait gentle knight who rescues the lady in distress.”
“What about the nonconformist rebel?” asked Val. “Marlon Brando.”
“The genius. Vincent Van Gogh, or Steve Jobs,” put in Kim.
“The gentle giant,” said Ellen dreamily. “The type who’s so masculine, in and of himself, that he doesn’t have to prove a thing.” She didn’t look at Hugh.
“The sweet boyish type that you want to mother,” said Tina. “Hugh Grant in Notting Hill.”
“The rich tycoon who treats you like a queen,” said Kim. “Ari Onassis.”
“These guys are all either ugly as hell or way femmy,” noted Gerry the Drummer.
“What’s a poor schmuck supposed to do if he doesn’t fall into any of those categories?” asked Jaime.
“Come to Tina’s parties,” cracked Val. Tina elbowed her, and then said to the men, “Okay. Tell us what makes a woman sexy.”
Jaime shrugged. “She’s present, and she’s willing.”
“That’s it?” shrieked Val. “We go to all this trouble to look good for you, and all you care about is whether we’re there and ready to go at it?”
“I hate to break the news, pretty lady,” said Gerry the Drummer. “But if a man is healthy and under fifty, that’s pretty much all that counts, unless there’s someone better-looking in the room.” Owen, who was definitely over fifty, threw him a dirty look, but he didn’t notice.
“Do you mean to say,” Val ground out, “that we could be in two-day old pajamas, unbathed, with scraggly hair and bad breath, and you’d still want to fuck us as long as we’re present and willing?”
“Uh huh,” replied Gerry. “Of course, we like it when you go to all that trouble and stuff. That’s cool.”
“You see, Val,” said Hector reasonably, “it’s like bread versus chocolate cake. When a man is hungry, it doesn’t really matter which one he eats.”
“But if a man has his daily bread, he begins to find himself interested in cupcakes,” added Charlie, giving Tina’s rear end a squeeze. She slapped his hand. “Stop that or I’ll crush your coconuts.”
Swallowing the last of her third zombie, Ellen noticed that the coffee table was covered with dirty plates. It looked like a mess. She got halfway to her feet to ferry them to the kitchen, and found that the floor was inexplicably rising toward her. Indeed, like a firm pillow, it made contact with her face gently and painlessly.
“Ellen?” Tina and Val were kneeling beside her and one of them was patting her cheek. “She’s out,” she heard Val say. “Guess the zombies were too much for her. Do you have a guestroom where she can sleep it off?”
“Sure,” said Tina. “Give me a hand… oh, thanks.” Ellen felt herself being lifted lightly, as though she weighed very little. She knew without looking that it was Hugh who held her. She allowed her head to loll and her mouth to hang open slightly, relaxing her body into a dead weight. Through closed eyes, she could sense the change in lighting as he carried her through the kitchen, the dining room, and down the hallway. A door was opened, and she was deposited gently on a bed, face up. Then Tina and Hugh withdrew, conferring in low voices, and she was alone in the dark.
“Ellen!” came a loud whisper. “Ellen, are you awake?”
Huh? She remembered now. It was Emily, inside the closet. This was the sting, and she was the bait. The recollection partially sobered her. “Yes,” she said as quietly as she could. “But I’m pretty drunk.”
“Was Angus here? He called me asking about my norovirus!”
“Yes, I told him.”
“You must have played it up too much. It was all I could do to convince him not to come over to my place with a quart of chicken soup and a thermos of strong tea loaded with milk and sugar. Scottish penicillin, he called it.”
“No, I said you were fine and that he shouldn’t worry.”
“Oh.” There was a long silence as Emily thought about this. Ellen gratefully lay back. Her eyes were adjusting to the gloom, but the room was spinning.
“Sssh. Do you want them to hear you?”
Emily modulated her voice. “I really have to pee.”
Ellen didn’t bother answering, as she could think of no useful advice to offer. The silence stretched out, though she had no idea how quickly or slowly the minutes were passing. She could hear talking and music on the other side of the house, and people going back and forth to the bathroom.
“Ellen? Are you still there?”
“Where else would I be?”
“I think I’m falling for Angus,” said Emily in a stage whisper. “I always thought I could only love a man who spanked me, but that’s not true. Even if he never does it, I still love him.”
There was a sound of someone’s body brushing against the door, and Ellen froze, feeling her heart speed up. She heard the door open. After a moment, it shut again.
Emily waited a full fifteen seconds before hissing, “What was that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Was it one of the men?”
“Emily, if you don’t shut up, I’m going to spank you myself.” At this, Emily fell blessedly silent. After experimentally trying differing positions on the bed, Ellen found that keeping one foot on the floor stopped the room from spinning. Finally, without intending to, she dozed off.
“Ellen. Wake up.” The overhead light burned through her eyelids, and she opened her eyes to find Kim, Emily and Tina in the room.
“What happened?” Groggily, she sat up, still feeling very drunk. “Nothing, right? Nobody came in.”
“I did, just for a second,” said Kim. “Sorry about that. I wasn’t sure which room was Tina’s bathroom, and I opened this door by accident.”
“So it didn’t work?” she asked. I’m going to have a huge hangover for nothing.
They glanced at each other, and then Kim said, “You’re not going to like the news, Ellen, but Hugh acted very suspicious.”
“What do you mean?” She sat up, her head already aching. She needed water.
“He carried you in here, and after that, he lurked around the kitchen, and then the dining room, waiting for a chance to sneak in.”
“We don’t know that was the reason,” said Tina, but she sounded half-hearted.
“If he was lurking, why didn’t he come in?” asked Ellen.
“Because he never had a good opportunity,” said Kim. “None of the men wanted Val’s cocktails, and they drank beer instead. By half past eleven, they were all taking turns emptying their bladders. Val and I discussed it too, before she left, and I would have to agree with the others, Ellen. He was definitely lurking.”
Ellen gazed at the three women one by one. They had pitying looks on their faces, but it was clear they believed they had found the rapist. “No,” she said. “Hugh didn’t do it. I know he didn’t.”
“You’re falling for him,” said Kim. “You’re not objective.”
“What are you going to do?” Her head ached abominably now.
“We’ll leave him off the text messages from now on,” said Kim. “If he asks me about it, I’ll say we’re reorganizing the group.”
Ellen shook her head, close to tears, and got up to use the bathroom. “Your overnight bag is in the closet,” said Tina, giving her a hug. “Drink as much water as you can. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: I hear that the film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is actually good, but I can’t quite bring myself to watch it. As for bachelorette parties with Zombie strippers, no offense if you’ve enjoyed one, but they leave me mystified. Vampires have a bit more erotic appeal, but I lost interest in the Twilight movies after the first one. Francis Coppola’s Dracula film is a good reminder of the ambiguity and horror which are inherent in the vampire figure, and cannot be sanitized out.
I enjoyed this little gem from the Wikipedia article about the film: “[Francis] Coppola brought in acting coach Greta Seacat to coach [Sadie] Frost and [Winona] Ryder for their erotic scenes, as he felt uncomfortable discussing sexuality with the young actresses. However he did ask [Gary] Oldman to speak seductively off camera to Frost while they were filming a scene in which she writhed alone in her bed in ecstasy. She later classified the things Oldman said to her as “very unrepeatable.”
Oh c’mon Sadie. Some of us would dearly love to know…