They fade away, lay low, sometimes. But always they come back--with new schemes as fantastic as they are sadistic.
They dedicate their lives to devising profitable little plots to salt the open wounds of individuals hit by gross tragedy. They specialize in operations which permit them to turn a fast buck and get their unnatural kicks at the same time.
In the past, I've mentioned a few of their abnormal games.
A couple of Christmases ago, there was the flourishing group which dealt in names taken from local obituary columns.
They visited the dead parties' next of kin to "deliver" a Bible which--they told the grieving relative--had been ordered by the deceased.
With solemn irreverence, they explained:
"He ordered it for you. He even asked that your name be engraved on it. In gold."
The ghoul would then open the book and show the victim his or her name. In gold.
"I'm sorry," he would continue, "but it hasn't been paid for yet. Of course, if you don't want it, if you don't want to abide by your loved one's final wish--"
It would almost be sacrilege to say no, even if the price was exorbitant. Which it usually was.
This pleasant little game is revived periodically.
And so are some others.
There's the professional "blesser," who searches out homes where there is serious illness. She blesses the clothing, the curtains, the bed, the silverware--and, of course, the money.
There are the witchdoctors and the cancer quacks who accept your money in exchange for voodoo and sugar pills. And watch you die slowly and painfully.
And then there are those who "contact" you after you're dead, and pass along spirit messages to your kin advising them to invest in phantom gold mines.
These people are ghouls.
But yesterday a man in our town went all of them one better.
With no hope of profit, no plausible chance for personal gain, he elected to telephone Mrs. Mary Bowman that he and his "partner" had Tommy and that the boy was alive and well.
Since the boy's disappearance in the foothills above Pasadena, the Bowmans have never given up the hope that their son is living and will someday be returned.
So naturally the child's mother was willing to listen to anything, to anybody.
The caller instructed her to stand outside and wait.
She did. It was raining, but she stood there for quite a while.
"Maybe it wasn't long," she told me afterward, "but just thinking that maybe, possibly, Tommy would come back to us made it seem like hours."
Finally, she gave up the vigil, stepped back into the house and called the police.
Unwillingly, she admitted to herself that Tommy was no closer to home this week than he was last week or the week before. She simply had been the victim of an evil hoax.
It's hard for me to believe that anyone could have a mind so degenerated, so deranged that he could get his pleasures by heaping additional torture into the already tortured life of Mrs. Bowman.
But there is somebody like that.
He's sick, I suppose.
But that kind of sickness turns my stomach inside-out.