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Warning Signal

by John E. LaCarna

part 1 of 2

There was that bum, again, the ugliest man I ever saw. His face was like bloody hamburger. He stared at me with his one eye — where the other had been sat a raw, oozing empty socket. His nose was a ragged hole, and his lower jaw was missing, torn away by whatever calamity had befallen him. He held up a gloved hand — God knows what it was like underneath the leather — and he shrieked and shrieked and shrieked!

Every day, he would suddenly pop up and hobble after me around the campus until I hollered back at him, “Get away from me, you damn lunatic! I don’t have anything to give you. I’m as broke as you are!” and I shoved him away.

Did I look like I was rich? Hell, I barely had enough for myself. And I didn’t need this pest. I had enough on my mind with Ligeia and her warlock stepfather.

Yeah, Ligeia, like the Edgar Allen Poe character. She was raven-haired like her namesake, but she wasn’t tall and consumptive. She was tiny, five feet tall, with a baby face, looked a well-developed fifteen or sixteen, though I knew she couldn’t really be that young. She was sitting at the bar in Shorty’s Off-Campus Lounge sipping a daiquiri.

Anyhow, I’d always had a thing for young-looking stuff, and I decided her appearance gave me an opening to approach her. I walked up to her and looked about, as though I were looking for her parents, and said, “Excuse me, little girl, are you lost?”

I knew I was taking a chance of making her mad — I’m famous for shooting myself in the foot — but damn if it didn’t work. She smiled shyly, and said “I look younger than I am. Everybody says that. Actually, I’m nineteen.”

I feigned embarrassment. “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were a... er... very young.”

“I know. A child.” She giggled. “You were about to say you thought I was a child. That’s all right. I don’t mind.”

“I’m twenty-eight, myself,” I said to continue the conversation. “I’ve been in school the last ten years. I’m a professional student.” I was using my “disarmingly frank approach.”

Again she giggled her little-girl giggle. “Well, you’re honest. How do you live?”

I sat beside her. “My father. But he’s threatening to cut me off. I wish he’d die. Then I’d get a pile, if he doesn’t find a way to cut me out of my inheritance too.”

I spoke in a light, bantering manner, but she shuddered. Then she blurted out “I wish my stepfather would die!”

And you know it, Jesus, right at that moment, here comes Hamburger Face limping across the room toward us, waving his arms, and making that grisly shrieking sound. He actually sprang at me and grabbed my arm.

I jumped up, jerking away from him in revulsion, tripped back over my chair, and flipped head over heels onto Shorty’s grimy floor. By the time I’d untangled myself, the scum had crept away.

Only a couple of other customers and the old lady who tended the bar were in view. They were laughing. “There goes Ferdie again! What a klutz!” The girl looked frightened.

“Don’t be scared,” I said. “He won’t hurt you.”

“But he does!” she cried. “He’s horrible! He controls me! I can’t get away from him!”

It took me several seconds to realize she wasn’t talking about the bum, but about her stepfather.

Suddenly she straightened up stiff, eyes wide open, whispering “Oh, my God! My God!”

I jumped up, looking around for danger. “What’s the matter? What’s wrong?”

“He’s calling me! He’s making me go! Oh, my God! Help me!”

I grabbed her hands. “It’s all right! He can’t get you here.”

She pulled away. “No! I’ve got to go!” And before I could react, she had dashed out of the bar. I sat stunned for several seconds, and when I ran out after her, she was out of sight.

I didn’t even know the girl’s name at that point. I hadn’t seen her in any of my classes. Shorty didn’t know anything about her. He said she’d come in a time or two the last week. “She’s quite a looker but too short for me.”

I had to laugh. Roger “Shorty” DeJean’s a seven-foot-three former basketball star. His pro career was cut short by a back injury when the bar stool he was sitting on collapsed. He sued and now owns the bar.

So, anyhow, all I could do was to keep coming back in hopes the girl would return. Shorty kept it so damn dark in there I mistook several other girls for her. They must’ve thought I was crazy, running up to them, peering at them, and turning away.

The old lady bartender frowned at me, looked like she was about to kick me out. Shorty said the darkness “makes the place romantic,” but I think the cheap bastard was just saving on electricity.

A week later, as I walked up to the bar’s entrance, there was the bum. His kind hung out around the periphery of the campus, thinking students were easy touches. But why had this one latched on to me this way? He wouldn’t give up. He’d been haunting me every day, and now, there he was, hollering in front of Shorty’s.

He let out his awful screeching sound, his shriek, and grabbed at me. I pushed him away again. “I don’t have anything for you, I tell you!” I made my way into Shorty’s.

This time, there she was, the girl, sitting at a table in the corner as if she were waiting for me. In fact, she was waiting for me. As I entered she looked up and motioned me over.

“I was hoping I would see you again,” she whispered. “I didn’t know your name. I didn’t know how to contact you.”

“Well, same with me,” I said. “Let’s introduce ourselves.”

So we did. That’s when she told me her Edgar Allen Poe name, and I told her Poe was my favorite author. Whenever I got drunk at Shorty’s, which was often, I recited “The Raven,” and “The Conqueror Worm,” and “Alone,” and other stuff.

I told her I was Ferdinand Maximilian Burrows III, and I was a genius as yet unappreciated by the world. My so-called friends considered me a klutz, said I made Inspector Clouseau look like Fred Astaire.

“Yeah, well we’ll see,” I told her. “Someday I’ll show them things that’ll pop their tops. Then we’ll see who’s a klutz. I’m into occult studies, parapsychology. I’ve got a couple of terrific projects going.

“For one thing, I’m working on conjuring up a Guardian Devil. You know how some religious people, Catholics for example, believe in Guardian Angels sent down from Heaven by God to protect them from evil? Well, I want a Guardian Devil come up from Hell to deliver me into evil, to plotting evil plots and doing evil deeds.”

“Oh, my goodness! Whatever for?” she asked incredulously.

“Because evil’s fun and profitable,” I explained. “Goodness...” I enunciated the word with profound disgust. “Goodness restricts your actions. But there’s no limit to badness.”

She laughed, thinking I was being facetious. Actually I was dead serious.

“Of course, it’s true there are always more ways to go wrong than right,” she acknowledged.

“There you go,” I said. “With evil, your options are unlimited.”

“But what’s your other project. You said you had a couple.” Well, she was interested, anyway.

“I’ve been practicing how to project my astral body. Move around in space and time, you know. Practicing for years.”

“Can you do that?”

“Naw, I haven’t got it yet, but I will some day. I’ll fly to the future and learn things I can use: what horses are gonna win, what football teams are gonna beat the spread. What’s every gambler’s wish? ‘All I want is tomorrow morning’s newspaper.’ I’ll have tomorrow morning’s newspaper!

“And I’ll fly to the past and change a few things — change some wrong turns I took back there, undo some mistakes, maybe. Isn’t that something everybody wishes they could do? Take full control of their destiny that way?”

Ligeia, who had been holding her hand over her mouth, finally burst out laughing, her funny little child’s “Hee Hee Hee!” She found me entertaining, which was a start. But when she began to tell about herself, her mood became somber. Her story, too, involved the occult and the Satanic, but there was nothing funny about it.

Her stepfather, Percival P. Stoop, owner of Stoop’s Real Estate and various other businesses, was in league with the devil. He had malignant supernatural powers. Stoop had murdered Ligeia’s father so he could have her mother and her family fortune, and then he murdered her mother so he could have Ligeia.

“Murdered them! How?”

“Oh, no way that could be found out,” she said. “To the doctors, they died of natural causes. But I know he killed them. He murdered them through supernatural means. He cast vicious spells on them — sickness and death.”

“Aha!” I exclaimed. “Spooky business! I can handle that.” As scary as it may be to other folks, that kind of stuff was right up my alley. And something else Ligeia had mentioned didn’t go unnoted. “Er... So he did your mother in for her fortune, you say. Your family, it was... ahem... well off?”

“Over twenty million,” said Ligeia. “He has it all. He had my mother put everything in his name before she died. He controls the bank accounts, everything. And he controls me.”

“Ligeia, I’ll help you,” I said.

“But I told you he’s got terrible powers. He’s a warlock! He’s got the powers of the devil!”

“The devil!” I snorted. “What do I care about devils! Bring on your goddamn devil! I’ll present you with his horns and tail.”

She laughed at that, despite herself. “You are crazy!” she said. “But this is no joke. We can’t escape him. He’d find us. No matter where we’d go.”

I was quite pleased by her choice of pronouns. I was already a part of her life.

Now I wasn’t so naive that I actually thought Ligeia’s stepfather was a genuine, real-live warlock. The occult and witchcraft were fun to play with, but I’m not sure I really believed in all that stuff. But I believed Ligeia believed it. She thought he had supernatural powers, and her belief was what gave him power over her. And knowing this gave me power over both of them, and the means to be independent of that old bastard, my father. Love or money may be a hard choice. But here was a love and money proposition.

I can’t say a plan was born fully-formed in my brain just then and there as to how I was going to exploit this situation. But the goal was clear: to marry the girl and share the fortune with her.

During the following month, I met with Ligeia regularly, and eventually we made out on a thick pile of autumn leaves in the woods bordering the campus lake.

Afterwards, we rested together in the moonlight, her head on my shoulder. Suddenly, I spotted a dark figure peering from behind a tree, staring at us with his one eye, and then came the now all-too-familiar shrieks. Oh, no, this was too much!

“Goddammit, I’m gonna kill that son-of-a-bitch!” I rushed at him with murderous intent, but he disappeared into the darkness. What was that clown, my Guardian Devil? Well, he could get right back to hell!

I stood there shaking. If I’d caught that creep, he would’ve been a dead man. And strangely, through that incident, I knew I had the capability to murder Ligeia’s stepfather. The bum had brought out the killer in me. So at least the bum had served that purpose. I couldn’t say he was good for nothing.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by John E. LaCarna

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