After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

The trouble was that he had no indication of any place to start. Of course the letter to Jim Lockwood, whoever he might be, might be a clue, if Jerry could understand why it had been given to him.

Still sitting at his breakfast table, he dug the single page of the letter and its envelope out of his pocket once more, and tried again to read the water-damaged writing. He had no better success than before.

As he put the letter back in his pocket, his hand once more encountered the bank key and he pulled it out. It was much bigger than the keys he had commonly carried in the twentieth century. The hard, precisely shaped metal lay in his hand feeling large and solid and enigmatic. Jerry could not shake the intuition that it had to be of great importance.

Putting away his change as he left the restaurant, Jerry let his hand remain in his pocket, resting on the one key. The same irrational compulsion to use the key that he had felt in Springfield, was now stirring again, though less wildly this time.

Carpetbag in hand again, he set out, with the odd feeling that once he started walking he would go in the right direction.

On his short walk from the railroad station to the restaurant he had noticed only one bank, one with a conspicuous painted sign. Now he was walking toward that sign again. Probably the establishment under that sign would be the most logical place to go, for someone arriving on a train, who had been advised to patronize a Chicago bank.

And Jerry suddenly recalled that he, on the night of wine and pizza, had been mysteriously advised to do just that.

Sauntering into the bank lobby, Jerry tried to adopt the air of a man of wealth—it wasn’t really hard to do, now that he had realized how many stacks of hotcakes the money in his pockets could buy. The air inside the bank was blue with smoke. Half the men in the lobby seemed to be smoking cigars; but unless there were compelling reasons, he didn’t really want to go that far in trying to project an air of affluence.

Brass cuspidors stood beside almost every counter and under every table in the bank, the floors and carpets around these targets being heavily stained by poor marksmen. The mellow brightness of gaslights augmented the smoky daylight that entered through high narrow windows to shine on the wood panelling of the walls.

Jerry set his bag down on the tobacco-stained carpet. He had brought his newspaper with him from the restaurant, and he opened it now and used it as a cover, observing the activity in the lobby past its edges, now and then turning a page. It took him a few minutes to identify the counter where safe-deposit business was being transacted, and the clerk who handled it.

Unhurriedly he loitered closer and observed more closely. When, finally, he was able to catch a glimpse of one of the keys being presented, he decided that it was a good match for the one he was carrying in his own pocket.

Jerry read for another minute or two, then unhurriedly folded his newspaper under his arm again and strolled up to the counter.

The clerk accepted the key calmly. “And the name, sir?”

Jerry had had the time to get his cover stories and his excuses, if any should be required, as ready as he could get them. “Lockwood,” he announced. “James Lockwood.”

The clerk, his eyes in a permanent squint, moved his shirtsleeved shoulder to let the gaslight fall more fully on the pages of the register he had just opened. “Yes, Mr. Lockwood. Sign here, please.”

The book was turned and pushed across the counter to rest in front of Jerry. He felt no more than faintly surprised to see that the open page already contained several specimens of Jim Lockwood’s signature, presumably one for every time he’d visited the box. More surprising somehow was the fact that in several places another name, this one signed in a definitely feminine hand—though for once not that of Jan Chen—alternated with Lockwood’s. Jerry read the lady’s name as Colleen Monahan. The most recent visit by Ms. Monahan, it appeared, had been only yesterday.

Jim Lockwood’s penmanship looked nothing at all like Jerry Flint’s usual band, but he committed the best quick-study forgery he could, and then held his breath, waiting to see if it would sell. But it seemed that he need not have worried, for the clerk scarcely glanced at the book when Jerry pushed it back across the counter.

“This way, sir.” And the man was lifting open a gate in the counter to let Jerry through. He was now facing the entrance to a kind of strongroom, walls and door of heavy wood reinforced with plates of iron or steel. Together they entered the strongroom, where Jerry’s key in the clerk’s hand released one of a row of little strongboxes.

“Would you prefer a booth, sir, for privacy?”

“Yes. Yes, I would.”

In another moment, Jerry, clutching in both hands a small metal box that had the feeling of being almost empty, was being shown into one of a row of tiny partitioned spaces, the door of which he was able to pull closed behind him. The booth was open at the top, enabling its occupant to share in the light from the windows and the gas-jets of the lobby.

Jerry set down his metal box on the small table provided, opened the catch, and swung back the lid.

There were two items in the box, one a mere folded piece of paper, the other a large, old-fashioned, stem-winding pocket watch, with chain attached.

Paper first. The timepiece did not look all that informative, but with paper there was hope. He took the small sheet up and unfolded it to read a note.

Dear Jim Lockwood—

Things have gone a little sour. Whatever day you get this, bring this note when you come out and meet me outside the bank. If I am not there come back every hour at ten minutes after the hour in banking hours.

Our employer is concerned about your health.

Colleen M.

The handwriting of the note, he thought, matched that of the alternate signature in the book kept by the clerk. Jerry sighed and folded up the note and put it in his pocket.

Next he picked up the watch. It was ticking, evidently wound and functional. To Jerry’s inexpert eye the timepiece, looking serviceable but plain, did not appear to be of particularly great value. Its case was of bright metal, hard enough to be steel. There was a round steel protective cover over the face, and Jerry thumbed a little catch and swung the cover back. Then he caught his breath.

The surface he was looking at was not like any watch face that he had ever seen before. It was more like a small circular video screen; and even more like a miniature round window into a small three-dimensional world.

The video turned itself on while he looked at it. In the window there now appeared, in full color and apparent solidity, the face of the man Jerry had known as Pilgrim. The lips of the image were moving, and now—suddenly, when Jerry held the watch at just the right distance—the voice became audible. But image and voice alike were being blocked out at intervals, by bursts of roaring static and white video noise.

“—paradoxes of time travel,” Pilgrim’s voice was saying, “caused in large part by”—crash, whirr—

“may prevent your seeing or hearing this message in its entirety. Therefore I attempt to be creatively redundant. We here at this end, Jerry, can only hope and pray that you will find this message, and that enough of the content is going to come through to enable you to”—whizee—fizzle—zapp!

Long seconds passed. When the picture came back again, Pilgrim’s head was in a different attitude.

“—and one time only,” Pilgrim’s voice resumed in mid-sentence. “Then this message will self-destruct. ” His swarthy face frowned. “Let me emphasize once more, Jerry, that your only chance of being able to return to your own time, and finding your own history intact when you do so, lies in preventing the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.”


Pilgrim’s image proceeded imperturbably. “Within a few days of your own arrival in the world of eighteen sixty-five, the President is shot to death by—”

Again there was interruption, audio static accompanied by visual effects that momentarily reduced the picture to unintelligible noise. The effects of video distortion in three dimensions were especially chaotic. After several seconds, the interference was gone as suddenly as it had come.

“—have until the fourteenth of April, Jeremiah, at Ford’s Theater in Washington. Unless—” blast, crackle.

And, yet again, static had cut off the flow of information. But in another moment Pilgrim was back again, coming through as loud and clear as ever. “—chosen you for this mission because of this almost unique ability which you possess. Without this power to avoid some of the effects of paradox, your mission would be truly hopeless. With it, we can hope that you have at least a fighting chance of success.”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred