The Wizard in Room 5B
When Evil Takes Over
Mr. Forrest had a dark soul. By all accounts, he was an unattractive man, both in appearance and in demeanor. He was born to a dirt-poor Southern family and reared a dirt-poor family of his own. He’d become a lieutenant general during the war, accused of crimes against the black Union Army. The water of the Mississippi ran red with their blood, and Mr. Forrest was pleased with that.
He’d been a lucrative slave trader until after the war. The crack of a bullwhip against the tender flesh of a bare black back excited him; a cry of agony gave him respite. After abolishment, the railroad company he took charge of afforded him none of those feelings and he watched it fail.
He spent his final days practicing his immoral power by running a prison work farm on an island in the river, but not even the screams of the prisoners he tortured there could prevent his health from failing. The shadow of death did not bring him solitude but instead granted him a choice.
Mr. Forrest could walk into the light and open the door to see what fate awaited his soul, or he could stick around and keep doing what had made him happy. Somebody has to help make evil in the world happen. And the best part was there would be no lawful repercussions for his actions. Mr. Forrest chose the latter.
Through the years, he prospered at planting seeds of hatred. He whispered unpleasant thoughts in the ears of white men; they did what he told them. Crosses were lit and black boys were hanged. Churches burned and flesh scarred. Wives bleached the white bed sheets the next day to hide the sins of their husbands. But it was in the spring of 1968 when Mr. Forrest took a room on Main Street in downtown Memphis that he’d do his greatest and final deed.
* * *
James had been sentenced to twenty years in the Missouri State Penitentiary for repeated offenses like forgery, mail fraud, and armed robbery. But in 1967, the prison bakery truck was transporting more than bread out of Jefferson City. James was hiding under the false bottom of a flour bin in the back of the truck.
On the move, he bought a Mustang and got a driver's license in Alabama. He picked up a Mexican prostitute in Puerto Vallarta. He was going to make something of himself. He was going to be a porn director. But his lover laughed at him and at the result of his mail-order camera equipment. He would never make money at this. So, James left Mexico and headed to California. He went to bartending school. He took dance lessons. He still wanted a purpose, a new outlook. In L.A., a plastic surgeon gave him a new nose.
James was a wanderer. He loved the open road and the idea that no one knew where he was; no one, not even him, knew where he was going. He drove from California to Georgia, bought a rifle in Birmingham, a newspaper in Atlanta. The cover story was about a local reverend making plans to stay in Memphis to partake in a union trash worker strike.
James followed him.
* * *
Mr. Forrest moved into Room 5B of Bessie Brewer’s Boarding House. It was a modest brick tenement tucked over a retaining wall across the street from the Lorraine Motel. Its single rooms were dank and small, with dirty floors and peeling paint, cheap and accommodating for wayward travelers in need of a temporary place to stay.
5B was upstairs, next to the common bathroom, on the backside facing the alley. The window above the tub in the bathroom provided a full view of the balcony of the Lorraine. Mr. Forrest knew this was the place where it would happen.
James checked into the New Rebel downtown because the reverend was staying at the Peabody. One of the reverend’s staff members informed him that staying there didn’t set a good example for his people. The Peabody was upper class and had room service.
Perhaps they should stay somewhere more suited for people of their color, somewhere cheaper. The reverend did not argue, so his entourage moved to the Lorraine on Mulberry. The reverend took room 306 on the upper level.
James followed him.
* * *
“Room 8 on the second floor,” Miss Brewer said to James, handing him his key and pointing to the staircase.
“Need me to sign anything?” James asked.
“Nope,” Miss Brewer said, not looking up at him.
“Nobody knows who’s here, huh?”
Room 8 was on the front of the house. Before he’d even unpacked, he went back downstairs and asked Miss Brewer if he could move to the backside because it would be quieter and it was closer to the bathroom.
“I just bought a new Mustang and I’d like to keep my eye on it back there in the alley,” he offered.
Miss Brewer reached for the key to 5B but it was gone.
“I noticed the door’s open. Don’t need no key. I’m only staying one night,” James said.
“Fine with me,” Miss Brewer said.
James rushed back upstairs and into his new room. The bed was unmade but he didn’t care. He locked the door and put his two suitcases on the bed. James was a meticulous and detailed packer when it came to his luggage; he gave unpacking the same treatment. Laying each item in a neat row across the bed, he’d start with his toiletries: aftershave, soap, toothbrush, straight razor, shaving cream, hair tonic…
When he was done, he unpacked his four shirts and two pair of pants, refolded them and placed them into the drawers of the old bureau against the wall. Then he went into the bathroom next door to take a piss. He noticed a window above the tub. He climbed into the tub to have a look. The window had been painted shut, but he pried it open with his pocket knife. The view of the balcony of the Lorraine was much clearer from here.
Leaving the window open, he went back to his room. He sat in the chair by the bed, lit a cigarette, and worked on attaching the scope to his rifle.
* * *
Mr. Forrest had watched the reverend kiss his wife and kids goodbye in Atlanta. He’d watched the reverend kiss his mistress last night in the Peabody. Sometimes even dark-skinned potentates had dark sides to their soul—if they had a soul—and Mr. Forrest could appreciate that.
He’d been watching James since Birmingham. Mr. Forrest did not think James was the illustrious type to do what needed to be done, but seldom are the men who make or change history.
Unlike others, James was not reckless. He’d escaped a high-security prison, after all. He planned. He had patience. And today he only had one motive on his mind, and Mr. Forrest had put it there. He was intent on watching the reverend die. As for what came after that, he did not know. Mr. Forrest would be gone by then, and James would be on his own.
Mr. Forrest had taken the key to 5B. He didn’t need it, but he knew it would prevent Miss Brewer from renting the room to anyone else. He’d told the young black man to advise the reverend to change their housing. And very soon, he’d tell James to pull the trigger.
* * *
James had just finished cleaning and loading the rifle when he decided to lie down on the bed and read the newspaper he’d picked up in the lobby of the New Rebel. Suddenly he thought he heard the door open, but when he looked up from the news no one was there.
The door was still locked. He heard footsteps, but it had to be someone in the hall. He felt someone watching him, but he thought he was alone. Just then, a cool draft crawled across his skin. For a moment, James mistook it for fear.
“Look out the window,” Mr. Forrest whispered to James, gently touching James on the arm.
James was too wrapped up in the story about the union trash workers to listen to the voice in his head. He needed a tip, something that would put him one step ahead of the reverend, but he wasn’t finding it in the local paper.
“Just look out the window.”
James threw the paper down on the bed and leaned up. He looked out the window and the glint of the sun in the windshield of the reverend’s Cadillac caught his eye. Someone had pulled the car around.
The door to room 306 on the second floor of the Lorraine was open. James grabbed his binoculars for a closer look. A few colored men in suits had stepped out onto the balcony for a smoke.
James jumped to his feet and opened the cloudy window. Those men were part of the reverend’s staff; James had seen them at the Peabody. But then there was a flash as the sun caught the spangle of a Rolex watch from behind the men. Someone else was stepping out of the room to join the men on the balcony.
It was the reverend.
Mr. Forrest stood at the window next to James to admire the view. He liked to watch. “Do it. Do it now,” he whispered to James.
James grabbed the rifle and raised it to his shoulder. He closed one eye and peered through the scope with the other. Just then the wind blew along Mulberry Street and through the trees, still barren from winter; their crooked branches shifted and tried to block his view. The chill of the breeze forced the men on the balcony to want to hurry down the steps to the warm car that was waiting. James was running out of time. If there were two things Mr. Forrest hated it was time and angels. Both had always worked against him.
“The bathroom window,” Mr. Forrest reminded James.
James unlocked the door and rushed out of the room. The bathroom was vacant. He locked the door and stepped into the tub. The window was still open. He propped his elbow upon the sill and steadied the rifle on his shoulder again. Peering through the scope, he noticed the reverend was standing at the top of the balcony talking to one of his staff members. The wind had subsided and the reverend rested his hands on the rail and leaned forward into the sun, chatting with his men down below at the car.
“Pull the trigger,” Mr. Forrest whispered to James, just in case James had any sense of hesitation.
And that’s just what James did.
* * *
He had hesitated, but only for a second. Mr. Forrest didn’t expect that from James, so he’d stepped inside his mind. Mr. Forrest was good with a gun. He hadn’t killed anyone himself since the war. Why not take control this last time? It would make it even more exceptional. Mr. Forrest took hold of his finger and he pulled.
James had no time to admire what had been done. With a flash of red spurting over the balcony, he saw the reverend tilt back and fall to the landing. James heard a lady scream. He saw the young men run back up the stairs to where the reverend lay dying.
It was done.
And now was the exact moment where James had to think about what came next. He leapt out of the tub and hurried back to 5B. He thought he heard laughter; it must be coming from Miss Brewer’s black and white TV set downstairs. He threw his clothes and toiletries back in the suitcase. There was no time to pack them properly. He wrapped the rifle in the bedsheet and hurried down the stairs and out into the alley.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, so hurried and chaotic. Everything had been meticulously planned out until now. Where had James gone wrong? He mistook the ambulance for police sirens drawing near and ducked into a doorway.
“Leave the gun here,” Mr. Forrest told him before fading away.
* * *
James didn’t know why he’d left the gun where he did, but it was too late to go back for it. He could only hope some tramp would find it and hock it at a pawn shop. If the police found it, they’d trace it to Birmingham. They’d trace it to him.
As he drove out of downtown Memphis, suddenly James felt very alone. He felt different, like he needed a new outlook. Something to do. He liked the open road. No one knew where he was; no one knew where he was going, not even James.
About the Creator
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