Horror and Thriller Fiction posted October 24, 2021

This work has reached the exceptional level
Invitation to a Retirement Party


by Jay Squires

The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.
The author has placed a warning on this post for language.

“Do you find me attractive, Gretchen?”

She looked up from the camera adjustment she’d been making on her remote. “Stunning,” she said, wishing she’d dragged more of what she’d intended as the sting of nettle across the word. With a tap of her index finger, her Nikon’s vertical movement on its tripod slowed to a stop at his face.

Truth was, the moment he opened his door and she stepped inside, she had been
stunned by—by something that left her—she had to say it!—vulnerable, in the scariest possible way, defenseless. Was it a kind of beauty? No, no, she couldn’t say that. His wasn’t the squared-off and rugged, 5 o’clock shadowed handsomeness she’d envisioned during her ten-month quest.

Therein was the problem. Because she fancied herself above girlish delusions, it pained her to admit that her expectations had been, probably like all the others, socially conditioned. Sadly, it was the reason why, viscerally, she was no different from anyone else. Could that account for how he—over a two-decade span—convinced an estimated one-hundred and two late-teens, and early twenty-somethings, that each one could safely enter his life as though it were a theater and emerge from the darkness an hour or two later, entertained, refreshed, revitalized, and hopeful? 

The FBI, police, and detectives from the twenty-two states in which he was known to operate, concluded that there was no evidence of even one of the missing girls being forced into a car, or in any other way taken against her will. 

This confused her. Especially when she speculated on the latter part of his career.

Common sense told her that over the span of twenty years … time ruthlessly sands down the sharp corners, rounds the structure of the cheekbones and jaw, and offers the first hints of fleshy pockets forming beneath the chin and neck. If his consensual method of operation hadn’t changed over time, surely his victims’ ages should have begun to edge up. Yet the girls’ median age over this last decade had only increased to age 19 over the previous decade’s 18 years. Whatever powers he possessed, evidently he hadn’t lost them.

However, she did notice a subtle change in his statistics.  Law enforcement statisticians noted there had been 67 missing girls over the first decade and only 35 during the second. But, they left them as numbers. She looked behind and under the numbers. Was he tiring? Physically? Emotionally. For her quest, she was counting on that. And something else—something she was convinced of, and her conviction seemed validated by the very question he just asked her. Indeed, over the waning of the last decade, his ego had taken a hefty hit.

With that speculation at the forefront of her mind, she’d spent the valuable final one minute of her overwhelmingly popular weekly vodcasts—every single one of them—over the previous 10 months, 41 in all, and each trying to outperform the last ... taunting unrelentingly, his diminished, but still scavenging ego. Little sixty-second snippets, ending with her phone number:

You've always been so careful in your planning, haven't you, Mr. Lipman? [the name she so proudly created] Never leave an instrument behind, leaving your workplace so immaculate, so free of any DNA. But there's no accounting on memory, is there? Do you sometimes wrack your brain over whether ... whether ... you know, Mr. Lipman. Call me at 812–397-C*R*Y*M.

Or this simple one:

Has it become increasingly harder to find one who will buy into your game? Has anyone
I don't knowlaughed at you?  Call me at 812–397-C*R*Y*M.

Or the one that hit paydirt!

I know you’re tired, Mr. Lipman. When you look back over the years, it’s not so easy anymore, is it? The planning, the care, the ceremony. Where is the thrill of the hunt? [Pause]There’s talk that you ARE number one … did you know that Mr. Lipman? Call me at 812–397-C*R*Y*M. Let me help you kick-start your legend.
~     ~     ~
She looked at him in the camera’s viewer, sitting, legs crossed, in his chair, ten feet from hers. His face had settled into more of a soft, almost androgynous smugness. Even so, she could feel the tide of something pull at her. If she allowed herself to dwell on it more, it could easily cloud her focus. 

And that could be deadly.

Finally, he spoke again. “You do,” he said, quite simply. “You don’t need to affirm it. I know you do. They all do. That’s why they make the process so easy for me ....”

There! He said it again. Like he had in the phone call. The process. And in the present tense. Unsettling.

“… But you’re professional, Gretchen. You’ll try to not let that be a distraction.” He smiled an easy smile and held it midway across a row of very white teeth, then let his smile relax into the words: “Until it is.”

Still not looking at him directly, she studied his image on the viewer screen, with his arched brow and pliant mouth, awaiting her response—and she locked in the setting for the image. She then checked the viewer screen for the number two camera, the one pointed at her, pushed a button on the remote. Her face came into sharp focus. For a fleeting instant, as her lips formed her question, she considered their dusky pink fullness (the signature tint her fans expected). She teased her camera, instead of him, with the question: “You’re telling me I need to be … very alert, then? Because you’re so fucking attractive? Is that what you’re saying?” And she turned her eyes from the screen to him.

He smiled so long, she thought he’d decided not to answer. Maybe her word choice shocked him. Maybe, in some twisted way, he was a moralist. 

“It’s a scary world, Gretchen. I suspect they all
tried to be very alert.”

She felt the chill of that word ‘tried’ to her core; she looked away from him and back to the security of her own viewer screen. “Why did you choose to do this, Jeffrey? You did say it’s Jeffrey?”

He recrossed his legs under the top flaps of his maroon housecoat, his knee angling away from her. “I’m disappointed in you, Gretchen. It’s Harley.”

“Okay—a change to Harley’s fine.” Smiling into her camera: “Just to make it clear to my viewers, though, I did write your name down when you called me a week ago. It
was Jeffrey then.”

“Was it, now? Well … we’ll use Jeffrey, then. You’ll find me easy to please.”

“Easy. To please.” She lifted an eyebrow to camera two. “So, Jeffrey … shall we start, then, with that question? Why did you choose to do this?”

The question seemed to puzzle him. Or perhaps it was something else. He raised an index finger to his mouth and touched his lips, gingerly, left to right.

“'This' … meaning this interview,” she clarified.

“Yes. Understood. You’ll excuse me?”

Gretchen touched a button on the remote, and the camera slid to a tighter focus on Jeffrey’s hand, rooting around in the half-filled gallon jar of lip balm tubes on the floor beside his armchair. As she studied it, she noticed, barely peeking out from behind his chair, a yellow towel covered something roughly the same size as the gallon jar. She returned to his long fingers removing a tube; he twisted off the cap, adjusted the wax level, and—
and was she just imagining it: his breathing deepening and quickening and his pupils dilating as he brought the wax across his upper lip and then his lower one?

He sighed, batted his eyes, sighed again. “Interesting story …” he started, refreshed. “Lips are among the most sensitive organs of the human body, did you know that? … with over a million nerve endings … and no protective membrane whatsoever.”

She stared at his lips. “I see … ”

“True—it’s true! And with all those nerve endings, nature didn’t equip the lips with one solitary sweat gland. Sweat produces moisture, you see, so the result is that the lips’ surface is as dry as the Sahara desert.”

“Hence …” she added, treating camera two to a full-circle roll of her eyes, “…your pickle jar half full of lip balm.”

“You think that’s funny, Gretchen? You think it’s funny that I take lips so seriously?”

“Funny? No, Jeffrey. Ha! The world knows how seriously you take lips. One hundred and two young girls know how seriously you take lips. Which brings us right back to the original question …”

He looked at her, rubbing his lips together.

She pushed a button. “Well, why, then?” she asked camera two, then finished her inquiry to his face, “… why have you chosen tonight to do this?”

Cocking his head, a smile suddenly appeared. “Why have I chosen tonight? My dear, you chose Halloween night to air this, not me. I’d have chosen tomorrow … the Day of the Dead, or
Día de los Muertos. That’s when I celebrate the souls of the hundred and two—and their gifts to me … my … my trophies.”

She didn’t expect this. Not now. She wanted to lead into it, to develop it, not have it tossed on the table in the first few minutes, like having a movie deliver its climactic scene a minute after the audience has settled in with its popcorn and sodas. Well … what was done was done. She’d milk it a bit more now and hope there would be something left for the end.

Conjuring up all the disgust she could summon, she glanced into camera two. “You mean,” she said, trying to create a look of someone working her words around a clot of vomit in her throat, “you mean by ‘trophies’ the lips you hacked off their faces, Jeffrey, before you got rid of their bodies?”

“The first ones, yes.” He nodded. “Yes, maybe the first half-dozen. But even a surgeon has to learn his craft. You’d be surprised what you can glean from a Grey’s Anatomy Book. Even before the internet and Google. I became quite a master of my surgery.”

“I’m sure you did. And we’ll explore that in some detail later. I’m even going to go out on a limb here,” casting a furtive glance, first at the covered jar, then at the camera, “and say that we might talk you into sharing a few of your trophies with us later on. We’ll see, and …” nodding to the camera, “… until then, dear viewers, stay tuned.” She turned to face him directly. “Jeffrey … it’s still very important that we address, right upfront, the question of why, over a period of ten months, after giving you some forty invitations to be on my show … why did you choose to be on tonight’s?”

He took in some air and let it out through fluted cheeks. “Gretchen, I’ve already told you.
You chose the date. You chose Halloween.”

She shook her head and sighed, wearily, into camera two. “But you didn’t have. to. call. Jeffrey! You didn’t have to fucking call!”

“Excuse me,” he said. “But … Gretchen! Do they allow you to be such a-a potty-mouth on this show? Besides, hh-how can you let a word like that pass through that beautiful … pouting, pink blossom of a mouth?”

“Jeffrey, if you don’t answer my fucking question—and I mean right now!—I’m going to shut this down—do you hear me?—grab my fucking cameras and get the hell out of here.” The scald of her words left her feeling light-headed, hollow, and breathless.
Was this where ten months of planning would grind to an end? She waited. “Well, Jeffrey?” For ten more seconds that felt like a full minute, she watched his downcast eyes, glanced at camera two, shrugged, letting her shoulders fall in defeat, and held her remote up to the camera, thumb poised.

Suddenly, he laughed and threw up his hands. “But checkout isn’t until noon tomorrow. What a shame to waste this room?”

She was careful not to smile, not to be drawn in.

“I’m ready to answer your question, Gretchen. But surely you know the answer yourself … and why—even now—why I’m hedging.”

“Of course, I do, but it has to come from you. That’s showbiz!”

“Okay. Okay. Just by being on your vodcast, I’ve … I’ve …”

“You’re struggling—let me help you. You’ve ended your career?”

“Ended? Those are your words. Hmmmm … Perhaps…”

“Only perhaps, Jeffrey?” She shook her head. “Get real!”

“You get real! My career doesn’t effectively end until they slap on the cuffs—technically, not until I’m behind bars. Of course, that can come at any minute now. Can’t it? Gretchen?” He looked past her at the door.

“What do you mean?”

He leaned toward her. “You know what I mean. You’re beautiful … you’re young … you’re vulnerable.” He stood.

On her remote, she flicked on the not-often-used camera three, whose monitor imparted a wider, cineramic view, the view of the back of him, ambling toward her, pausing to brush the back of his hand, gently as a breeze, across her cheek on his way past her and on to the floor-length window drapes. He pulled back the edge, only enough to peer through, and letting it go, he returned to her.

“Surprised?” she asked, barely able to get it out through her fractured breath. Camera two captured the pasty whiteness of her face and the lower portion of his robed torso standing next to her.

“Not at all,” he said. “It was—sooo soft.” 

His knees cracked as he knelt beside her; she watched on the monitor just as her viewers were: his eyes, nose, mouth facing her profile. She studied, up close, those heavylidded, fudge-brown eyes, the slightly curving blade-thin bridge of his nose. And in that instant, a hidden significance seeped into her mind.

Maybe they can see it, too!—my viewers … maybe they can see it now as I can, and all of us can see it, now, through the eyes of the hundred and two … Eyes! Eyes! Eyes! Trusting. Each believing in him and the vital part that one would play in his dream. Was he a poet for this one? A painter for that one? And how they all must have adored the poverty that preceded all greatness. She would be his muse, the poet said, his model, said the painter. And each one of them saw their future in the warm, chocolate depth of his eyes ... while he merely saw his reflection on the flat surfaces of theirs.

“But that’s not what you meant by ‘surprised’, is it, Gretchen—lovely Gretchen?” and she, in the monitor, saw what the viewers would be seeing at that moment when he cast a sideward, downward glimpse at her lips.

“There are no cops involved, Jeffrey,” she said, flatly. “Do you think I’d be that naive? Really … use your head. As hard as I worked to get you on the show, to get you to call me, would I throw the whole fucking thing out the window by alerting the cops? The cops only want their man. They want to put him under the hot lights and grill him until his will crumbles and he signs the confession.”

She swung in her seat to look him squarely in the eyes, and she cringed, she hoped not visibly, when her knee brushed by the front of his robe. “I want you all for myself, Jeffrey. Do you know that before this night is over, your name will be on the lips of millions of Americans? And mine will be the most-watched vodcast in the entire world?”

“We do need each other, don’t we?” he said to her mouth.

“Yes, we do. Jeffrey … so, why don’t you go on back to your chair and we can finish the interview?”

“I don't know whose needs are deeper, Gretchen, yours or mine.” He reached out his right hand and she felt his nails glide gently along the left side of her neck, and then the pad of his thumb, marshmallow-soft, caress the two inches of windpipe from the slot between her clavicles to the underside of her chin.

“Jeff-ur”—but the last syllable was cut off. Some part of her mind was aware of the blurred approach of his other finger-splayed hand, but her head passed it going in the opposite direction, her forehead cracking into the bridge of his nose. Blood spewed from beneath the flattened cartilage. He flopped to his back, his hands cupping his nose and mouth, blood oozing between his fingers. Rocking from side to side, entangled in his robe, he intoned into his palms, “Oh my God! Oh my God! What have you done to me?”

Gretchen grimaced into the camera, her palm pressed to her forehead. “Damn this hurts! It’s gonna be a beaut!” She felt her body reeling in small circles. “Hey, someone out there, someone watching from California. Get a pencil. Hurry! I’m kinda woozy. Someone call the Bakersfield police. Tell them to send a paramedic. We’re at the what, what, the
Cozy Eight on Roseland and Ninety-Nine. Roommmm one-forty-one. Please hurry. Thank you. ” She removed her palm from her forehead and briefly explored her neck and throat, then returned it. “By the way, I’m keeping this rolling—live streaming. The show’s the thing. I love you guys!”

She screwed up her eyes, felt tears of pain squeeze out. Then she turned and glanced down, through one opened eye, at Jeffrey. His lips were still moving to form a litany, but no words came out. “Damn it, Jeffrey. You picked a fine time to get back into the hunt. Asshole!” She gave his thigh a hearty kick, and seeing not the slightest response, kicked him again. “This show could’ve been so fucking good tonight. You could’ve given the performance of a lifetime. What a retirement party it would’ve been, eh? Fuckhead! Every network would’ve picked it up. My show would’ve set the new standard for Vodcasts.”

She clicked camera three on the remote to pick up her movement to the door. But the moment she attempted to stand, parts of the room began to swim and she thought better of it. 

“…And now, look at you Jeffrey fucking Lipman,” clicking back to camera two. “I wish you could see yourself as I do, as my two-hundred and fifty-thousand viewers see you. What a grand last hurrah you’ve chosen for yourself … you piece of shit, wrapped in an expensive robe.”

This brought a long groan from him, but it ended in something akin to a gurgly chuckle.

Gretchen attended to the sirens in the distance, waiting, listening, occasionally giving his thigh another kick. 


Halloween Story contest entry



Part of my "inspiration" for this tale came from a jailhouse interview with a Bakersfield, California serial killer. His name is Jaime Osuna and I've included the jailhouse interview here. But I should warn you it is graphic and can give you nightmares.

Thank you to Engin Akyurt on Upsplash for his intriguing photo.
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© Copyright 2021. Jay Squires All rights reserved.
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