Rumors is funny things.
One man tell another, and he tell his wife, and the kids is listening in and then everybody know. And somewhere along the line that story get changed till nothing left but half-truths and mostly lies. And ain't nobody left remembering what really happen in the first place.
Like any respectable town you might know of, Fordoche got a respectable rumor to match.
Story goes, man name of Fossah show up one day at the sheriff's office carrying two things: a big black handbag and a bottle o' gin. Nobody know where he come from. Fossah goes and he tell the sheriff he got something in the bag he wants for him to see. So the sheriff take one look in there and he goes white as a sheet. Won't say nothing about it to nobody. Next day sheriff don't wake up in the morning.
Well Deputy Judd Émile (that's me) gets the call and first thing I do is I go down to the bus station. 'Cause the way I see it, nobody know this Fossah fella, he probably just passing through. And I get lucky, he sitting there like he waiting for me with his bottle in his lap and that bag next to him, and he ask me if I want to take a peek.
"No thank you, Missah Fossah," I say, "I'm just here to arrest ye." And he grinned, he did, it caught me by surprise. His face were all hollowed out, like the skin was rags barely hanging on his skull, and he got a big hungry mouth full of snuff and gold. He didn't fight at all when I cuffed him, I guess 'cause he knew what was coming next.
Fossah disappeared right out the jail that night. We got people looking for him five counties over, he never turn up. But everybody know he still right here in Fordoche. Anytime somebody see something peculiar going on, Missah Fossah ain't far away. People say they seen him in the sawgrass behind the library, or sneaking through the cattails down by the bait shop. People been dying lately too, mysteriouslike, in their sleep. Missah Fossah's putting a curse on this town, everybody say.
That's the story, anyway. It's mostly true, but now I'll tell you what nobody else know about it.
There's three things. First, this ain't the first time Missah Fossah's been to Fordoche. Nobody remember him from before save old Maddie Babette. She come all the way down to the station to talk to me same day Fossah disappear, and I don't think she done left the house even once since Gator Jumbo ate up Ollie, that bastard son o' hers. I knew it must've been important.
"Judd," she say, "when I was a girl we told stories about a ghost named Smiling Zeke Fossah. This back in the day when folk still did magic. They say he was a slave run away from the confederacy and he got lost in the bayou, it was three sisters that found him and they took him in. They was all witches and they taught him the art."
"The art?" I say.
"Voodoo, boy, black magic. One day there was a fire, burned down half o' Fordoche and most o' the forest roundabout. Nobody know how it happen but there weren't nothing left of that old witches' house in the woods. They say all four o' them burned up that day. And Zeke's old captain in the war, he went on to become sheriff of the town, well he was dead the very next day. Fossah weren't done on this earth yet."
"I never were too keen on superstition, Maddie," I tell her. "So you saying this fella escaped from jail's using the same name as the smiling ghost from when you was a girl?"
Her face were carved deep with wrinkles like swamped cypress knees, sad and worn down. "Naw, boy," she whisper, "it's him!"
I gulped. "But that were a long time ago."
"Story say Fossah knew he was gonna die. He make a promise with the devil, he gonna live forever and he gonna get every sheriff in Fordoche, sure as shooting. You ever hear of even one dying any normal way?"
I had to think about that. We always had the same sheriff long as I could remember, and I don't know who come before him.
Maddie went on. "This prisoner o' yours, he carry anything with him?"
"He had a bag, and a bottle o' gin," I say.
"Big black handbag?"
"You look inside it?"
"Don't!" shout Maddie and I had to jump back a bit.
"You know what's in it?" I asked. I was maybe starting to believe her, or just curious I suppose.
"I do. I know the art. I can't tell ye anymore, boy. Don't you go looking in that bag though, and I ain't joking. You say nothing of this to nobody, and I was never here. You next in line to be sheriff?"
"You best say your prayers, Judd. Mercy mercy. You gonna need some Hail Marys too, get yourself a gris-gris, mercy, you best take this too, it always keep me safe. You gonna need it more than I do." She was trembling mighty hard when she slip a tarnished old amulet into my hand.
"What's this?" I say.
"Your life," she say. "And don't you so much as touch that bag again if you want to see tomorrow."
The second thing nobody know about the story is, I did touch that bag again, and just as soon as old Maddie Babette hobbled away. It were a dusty, ugly thing. I'd left it on the shelf in the evidence room and something kept pulling me back to it.
When I walked in that place all I could smell was rotten air. It weren't stinky, it were spicy, like chili powder in a crypt. I kept hearing my name, almost, like the bag were calling for me without no voice.
When I touched that bag the first time, when I arrested Missah Fossah, it seem like any other bag. But after Fossah disappeared, it come to life. When I run my fingers down the worn leather I had some kind of connection with that thing, where it been before, where it were going next. Give me chills but they was good chills.
This bag was mine. All its secrets, they was mine too.
There's one other thing nobody else know about the story, and they ain't gonna find out, neither. Missah Fossah came back to the sheriff's office the next day.
He was looking for his bag. But it weren't there.
I took that bag home and watched it all night. I couldn't sleep, not with it there in the room. Just watched it, like it were gonna do something if I so much as blinked.
Some time past midnight I heard somebody creeping in the hall just out my bedroom door. Missah Fossah stepped in the doorway and I see him plain, me sitting there on the bed with his bag in my lap, and Fossah weren't smiling no more. He just stare, and not at me. At the bag.
I never been one to spook easy but here was a ghost in my house what just done killed the sheriff and walked free right out the jail afterward and now he come for me (or at least for what he left behind). True, by now I knew he were a ghost. No human being do what he did. And there with the window moonlight hitting him, he so gray and the light shine right through his body like he weren't there. He almost waving like a flag. Don't matter what you been told, that's a ghost. I knew when I saw him. Things look different in the middle of the night when you been thinking about voodoo and up sleepless hugging the magic accoutrements of evil spirits.
I never gave much thought to killing folk. I always been a kinder sort, sheriff's deputy you know. Got a gun but never shot it. That don't mean I got no enemies though. I got plenty.
Missah Fossah were different that night. I decided it weren't just me and my thinking, 'cause plain to see he'd lost more than just a handbag — I don't think he had no powers no more neither. It's when I see him lick his lips and take a shaking step forward, reaching out for the handbag, that it strike me. This fella were desperate, he want the bag same as I do, maybe more. But I ain't giving it up to him.
It's hard to settle your differences with anybody man-to-man when you supposed to be the long arm of the law. But I was getting an idea.
So we strike a bargain, Missah Fossah and me. He wants his bag back, he gonna do some work for me first.
And that's when the killing start. Yesterday it were Don Charleton, he owe me $40 in a poker game, but he always buying cigarettes instead of paying me my due. Next week it going to be Maddie Babette 'cause she know too much. She tried to make me leave the bag alone when she know full well what it's for.
I love the bag.
And Fossah ain't getting it back till my work is done.
I been feeling funny lately.
Don't tell nobody.