After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

Cautiously he asked: “What’s going on in Washington?”

“Sit down and rest yourself. Don’t be waitin’ for a special invitation.” Colleen herself was already occupying the only chair, so Jerry sat down on the bed—the mattress was a grade quieter than cornhusks if not really any softer. His hostess continued: “What’s goin’ on? Stanton and Watson, Lord bless ’em, are finally ready to clean house. Old Lafe is goin’ to be on his way out—provided we can get you there alive to testify. Mr. Stanton won’t act until he can hear the facts from you personally.”

Stanton. Oh yes. Jerry could definitely remember Jan Chen, somewhere across the vast gulf of time, telling him that was the name of Lincoln’s Secretary of War. The name of Watson, on the other hand, meant nothing to Jerry, unless it was going to turn out that Sherlock Holmes was alive after all. Nor could he recall ever hearing of someone known as Old Lafe.

Unable to stand the uncertainty any longer, Jerry asked: “What do you hear from Pilgrim?”

“Who?” She had heard him perfectly, but the name obviously meant nothing to her—or else she was a suberb actress.

Jerry sighed. “Never mind. So, Old Lafe is going out.”

“He won’t be got rid of lightly,” his informant went on, shaking her head grimly. “He is efficient, when he wants to be, as we all know. But now the stories about his corruption are mounting and mounting, and the war is winding down. He can be dispensed with now. But Lafe Baker won’t disappear without a fight, as we both know. And how are things out in Missouri?” She flounced her body in the chair, adjusting the long skirt. She was better dressed, Jerry realized, than anyone would expect an occupant of this boarding house to be.

He only shrugged in answer to her question.

“I trust you got the goods on him.” There was hopeful hatred in the question.

Jerry looked her in the eye, trying to appear impenetrable rather than ignorant. “I want to get to Washington,” was all that he could find to say, at last. “Alive.” The problem of someone there knowing Jim Lockwood, and wanting him to give testimony about something, would have to wait.

“Right, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.”

Colleen had gone behind a professional mask. “Wouldn’t do any good. Even if you told me, I wouldn’t be able to testify first-hand. I forgot to ask you if you’d had anything to eat.”

“I’ve eaten well. You? And how about the train tickets? I’ve got money.”

Colleen smiled. “That was to be my next question.” She pulled an apple out from somewhere and began to munch on it. “Won’t be needing any tickets between here and Detroit. We’re going that far on a private car. I’m Sarah James and you’re John James. We’re married, of course. I don’t think Lafe’s people are going to be looking for a married couple. That’s why Stanton sent a woman as your escort.” Then she straightened herself firmly in the chair, as if to discourage any idea of intimacy the mention of marriage might have suggested.

“A private car.” That was impressive, thought Jerry. If it was true. “How’d you manage that?’

“The men who own the railroad are only too glad to be able to do a favor for Mr. Stanton.” She stated that as if it should be an obvious fact, and Jerry did not press for any elaboration.

His companion, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of apple, studied him and then remarked: “You don’t look all that much like the picture I’d formed of you from Mr. Stanton’s description, though there’s no doubt it fits. Strange how you can get a picture of someone in your mind and then it’s wrong. By the way, did you bring the note?”

Jerry dug from his pocket the note he’d taken from the safe deposit box, and passed it over. Colleen looked at it and was satisfied. “Reckon you’re all right,” she said.

Silence stretched out for a few moments, threatened to become uncomfortable. Jerry asked: “Have you been in this line of work a long time—Colleen? Mind if I call you that?” And he was thinking how different she was from Jan Chen, presumably in some sense her colleague. He wondered if they knew or had ever heard of each other.

“I’ve been at it long enough to know my way around. And for now you’d better start to call me Sarah.” It was something of a reproach.

“Of course.”

The two of them sat talking in Colleen’s room until it began to grow dark, when she suddenly asked him: “Have you the time?”

He dug out Pilgrim’s watch and flipped open the metal faceplate. “A little after six.”

“Then we must go.” From under her bed Colleen pulled out a small bag, evidently already packed. Jerry, carrying his own heavier carpetbag, followed her out the door. There was no light in the room to be extinguished.

This time Colleen Monahan led him on a circuitous route through the evening streets. Here and there lamps glowed in the windows of houses, and a man was carrying a short ladder from one gas streetlight after another, patiently climbing again and again to light them one by one.

Colleen looked over her shoulder frequently; Jerry, imitating her, could see no evidence that anyone was following them.

Pausing beside a high board fence, Colleen took one final look around, then dodged suddenly through a hole in the fence where several boards were missing. Jerry, staying on her heels, found that they were now in a railroad yard, a couple of blocks from the lighted station. The ground underfoot here was a maze of track. Kerosene lamps behind colored glass made what he supposed were effective signals. In the middle distance a couple of trains, lighted by lanterns and showering sparks, were moving sluggishly. Switch engines grumbled and snorted in near-total darkness, dragging the cars industriously.

Their baggage bumping against their legs, Jerry and his guide picked their way across one siding after another, moving in the general direction of the station. Chicago was evidently already well on it’s way to becoming a great railroad center.

“What are we looking for?” Jerry whispered when Colleen paused at last, obviously uncertain of exactly which way to proceed.

“We’re looking for the man we’re going to meet,” she whispered back.

“Who’s that?”

“A friend. I’ll know him when I see him.”

She moved on, with Jerry continuing to follow her as silently as possible.

Ahead of them an uncoupled passenger car waited on yet another siding. A dim figure emerged from behind it, looking in their direction. Colleen waved, and the man ahead returned her gesture, his arm almost invisible in the gathering gloom.

As they approached, the man waiting in the shadows tipped his cap in a remarkably humble gesture. Jerry could see now that he was black, wearing what Jerry took to be a kind of railroad uniform.

“Mistah and Missus James? I’m Sam.” The speaker touched his cap again, this time in a kind of half-military salute. “We expectin’ you heah. Lemme take you bags.”

“Never mind that, we’ll manage,” said Colleen. Despite the interference of her long skirts, she was already halfway up the steep steps leading into the car. “Let’s get moving.”

“Yas’m. We’ll be moving any minute.”

Someone would have to locate and attach an engine first, thought Jerry. But he kept quiet. In a matter of moments they were all three inside the car, where he received his next surprise. He wasn’t sure what kind of an interior he had been expecting, but these quarters were furnished better than Lincoln’s Springfield home, and Lincoln had not been a poor man when he lived there. Kerosene lamps with ornate shades were hidden behind shaded windows that let out practically no light. Thick carpets covered the floor, except for a layer of steel plates in the near vicinity of the woodburning stove. The heating stove, secured by steel tie-rods to the floor of the coach, was standing cold and empty in the mild spring night.

Not only the furnishings but the layout were more like those of a house than a railroad coach. In the rear, where the three had climbed aboard the car, was a kitchen-utility room, complete with cookstove, ice-box, woodpile and pantry. A narrow door standing open on a small closet revealed inside a primitive flush toilet, with overhead water tank. There was a scuttle of coal beside the cookstove, in whose iron belly a small fire was burning.

From this room Sam conducted his guests through a narrow passage leading forward along the left side of the car. At its front end the passage opened into a single large parlor, luxuriously furnished, with two softly upholstered sofas, matching chairs, and a few tables. Kerosene lamps secured near the corners of the ceiling provided lighting, and elegant curtains had been drawn on all the windows, making this a private world.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred