After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

“A fighting chance!” Jerry was raging in a whisper at the image. “Are you crazy? What are you talking about? Are you—?”

“—you must be at the side of the President, within two meters to have a high probability of success. Within three meters, to have any chance at all. And you must be there in the moment just before the assassin’s bullet smashes into Lincoln’s brain. Your total window of opportunity will be approximately three seconds long. During that three-second period, just before the bullet strikes, I repeat, you must activate the beacon.”

“Activate the what?” Jerry murmured unconsciously. His own face contorted in a scowl, he was frozen in absolute attention on the message. Pilgrim had indicated—hadn’t he?—that it was going to self-destruct.

Meanwhile Pilgrim’s hands had come up into sight on the small screen. The view closed in on them. They were holding a watch that looked very much like the one Jerry was holding, except that the timepiece in the image possessed a real face and hands.

The closeup held, while Pilgrim’s off-screen voice continued: “The hands must first be set, thus, at exactly twelve.” His fingers demonstrated, opening the glass face of the watch and moving the hands directly. “Then the stem must be pulled out, to the first stop. This is the first stage of activation, and I repeat it will in effect give you the advantage in speed of movement that you will need.”

“Repeat? You never—”

“Then, at the precise moment, just as the assassin pulls the trigger of his weapon, pull the stem to the second stop. This will activate the beacon.”

“What beacon?”

“That’s all. Until you need it on the fourteenth, this device will seem to be an ordinary timepiece. Need I emphasize that you must not lose it? You can wind it, by omitting to set the hands at twelve, pulling the stem out and turning it in the normal way.”

Now the image of the watch disappeared from the small screen, which was filled by Pilgrim’s face. He said, with emphasis: “Once more: The activation of the beacon must be accomplished only during the proper three-second interval. Pull the stem out to the second stop a second too late, and you will strand yourself permanently in the nineteenth century. Pulling it a second too soon will doubtless have the same effect, with the added drawback of causing irreparable harm to much of what you know as Western Civilization.

“But, do it at the right moment, and you will save the life of President Lincoln. You will also be restored to your own world, under conditions which ought to earn your country’s eternal gratitude.”

There was a sudden sharp whiff of a strange, acidic odor in Jerry’s nostrils. There was, briefly, a shimmering in the air immediately surrounding the watch. Jerry almost dropped it, although his hands holding the instrument could feel no heat. In a few seconds the shimmering was over and the smell had dissipated. Jerry was left holding a device that looked exactly like the one Pilgrim had held during the demonstration. The face was solidly visible, and the hands agreed at least approximately with those of the sober clock on the wall of the bank lobby, which he was able to see over the partition of the booth. And the instrument he held was ticking.

Stunned, Jerry mechanically tucked the watch into the watchpocket of his vest, and after a couple of tries managed to get the chain attached to a buttonhole in what he considered had to be the proper way.

Still somewhat dazed, he closed up the safe-deposit box, now empty but for the cotton batting, and carried it out of the little partitioned booth, to hand it back to the incurious clerk.

You must be there in the moment just before the assassin’s bullet smashes into Lincoln’s brain. Your window of opportunity will be approximately three seconds long…

Oh, must I? You son of a bitch, Pilgrim. I’d like to see to it that something smashes into your brain. I didn’t ask you to dump me into this drugged dream, this, this—

The fate of Western Civilization? More immediately graspable: his chance to get home. Pilgrim had said that it would be his only chance. Maybe that wasn’t necessarily so, but the bastard could probably arrange matters that way if he wanted to.

And it would happen in Washington, on April fourteenth. He recalled the date on the newspaper he was again carrying under his arm. This was April sixth. He had eight days.

He was just outside the bank, on the wooden sidewalk, with no idea of which direction he ought to go next, when a gentle hand in a soft gray glove placed itself on his arm, making him start violently. The young woman who had come up to him had chestnut hair, and calm brown eyes under her flower-trimmed hat. The face on the locket? No, he thought, not at all.

“Don’t be startled, Jim,” she said in a low, husky voice. She was smiling at him pleasantly. “Someone might be watching us. You don’t know me but I’m your friend. Because I’m in the same boat you are. I used to work for Lafe, but I’ve given it up too.”

Jerry opened his mouth to say something, and closed it again.

“Walk with me. Smile.” Her hand on his arm turned him gently on the busy sidewalk, and they walked together, at a moderate pace. He noticed vaguely that they were moving in the direction of the railroad section. “I’m Colleen Monahan. I’m working directly for Stanton now. It’s all right. He sent me to see to it that you get back to Washington alive.”


After hurrying Jerry down a side street near the railroad station, Colleen Monahan brought him up some wooden steps to the front door of a cheap-looking rooming house only a few blocks away. In the dim hallway inside the door the smell of stale cabbage overlay a substratum of even less appetizing odors. Next she led him up a dark, uncarpeted stair; there were four short flights, with a right-angled turn after each one. From somewhere nearby came the voices of a man and woman quarreling.

The upper hallway where they left the stairs smelled no better than the lower one. In another moment Jerry’s guide was unlocking the door to a small and shabby room.

“Our train leaves shortly after dark,” she announced, locking the door after Jerry as soon as he had followed her into the room. “If you want to change clothes before we start, there’s a few things in the wardrobe there that might fit you.” The more he heard of Colleen Monahan’s speech, the more easily Jerry could detect a trace of some accent in her voice; perhaps it was a genuine Irish brogue. And probably it would be more than a trace when she spoke with feeling.

“The train to Washington?” he asked.

“Of course. What did you think? I said I’d get you there alive.”

It was said in a matter-of-fact way that made the implied danger all the more convincing. “I bet,” Jerry said carefully, “that lots of people arrive there alive every day.”

Standing in front of a small wall mirror, Colleen had unpinned and taken off her hat. Now she turned to face him. “Not with Lafe Baker trying to stop them, they don’t,” she said. The short reply had the sound of practical advice, delivered calmly. Now, as Jerry approached the room’s single window, intending to look out, she added: “Better be careful. And hand me over that safe-deposit key while I think of it. You won’t need it any longer.”

Jerry pulled out the key, tossed it in the air and caught it. “How’d you recognize me?” he asked softly. “Lots of men go in and out of that bank.”

“I paid the safe-deposit clerk to pass me a signal. What did you think?”

After giving her the key he edged up to one side of the window and moved the curtain gently. The window gave an elevated view of backyards, woodpiles, and privies, the scene decorated by a few lines of laundry. If someone somewhere out there was watching the room, Jerry couldn’t see them. He let the dirty curtain fall back.

Turning to the tall wooden wardrobe, he took a look inside; only a few clothes were hanging there, but about half of them seemed to be male attire, somewhat shabbier than Jim Lockwood’s. “You mentioned changing clothes. Do you think I ought to?”

“You ought to know better than I,” she answered shortly. “Maybe the men chasing you don’t know what you’re wearing now; maybe they haven’t been after you every inch of the way here from Missouri. I can tell you it’s damned likely they will be after you from now on. And I’ve promised the old man in Washington to bring you there alive.”

He closed the wardrobe doors again. Pilgrim had arranged for him to be guided to this woman, obviously, but he had never said anything to Jerry about her. Beyond what she was telling him herself, Jerry had no idea of who she really was and how much she might know.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred