After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

Colleen paused for just a moment, as if the place were somehow not what she had been expecting, but she was determined not to show it. Then she carried on. “Sam, can you fix us something to eat? I saw a pantry back there.”

“Yas’m. I got a fire goin’. Supper comin’ right up.

Jerry and Colleen sat on soft furniture in the parlor of the millionaires’ train, looking at each other.

“Lord,” she said with feeling, “some folks know how to live. Don’t they, though?” Continuing a running commentary, she jumped up to investigate an unopened door, that must lead to the central room or rooms, bypassed by the narrow hallway.

“… I just hope that one day I—” She opened the door and fell silent. Jerry looked over her shoulder. Here was another cold stove, bolted down and vented through the roof like the others. The room also contained a wide, curtained four-poster bed—as well as a chamber pot, barely visible underneath, a washstand, another sofa, and a small table and chair. Some railway car, Jerry thought.

Somewhere outside the curtained windows, one of the switch engines was slowly rumbling its way closer; men’s voices were calling just outside the private car. Presently there came the jolt and jar of coupling. Jerry had ridden twentieth-century trains a couple of times, but those had been electric powered commuter specials, plying smoothly on short trips between Chicago and the suburbs. This, he expected, was going to be another new experience.

Colleen, still struggling not to be overly impressed, stood in the bedroom doorway. “This is very fancy indeed.”

“Just so’s it’s fast.”

“I expect it’ll be that too.”

With another jolt, the string of cars that now included theirs got slowly into motion.

Colleen moved to one of the parlor windows and parted a fringed curtain slightly to peer out. “We’re coming almost to the station… there’s the train we’re joining… they’re putting us right behind the tender. That’s good, most of the smoke will blow past us.” There now began a slow deliberate lurching forward and back, a grinding and banging, as more cars were coupled and uncoupled.

“This is the sixth of April,” said Jerry, hanging on to the heavy parlor table for support during this lengthy procedure. “I must be in Washington before the fourteenth.”

She looked at him. “I’m sure we will be, barring a train wreck. Or something worse. But what happens on the fourteenth?” When he did not answer she looked at him and added: “All right, I shouldn’t ask.”

Presently Sam returned, bearing waiter-style on one raised hand a tray of covered dishes, linen napkins, fine china, and crystal glasses. His two clients had seated themselves at the parlor table and were just beginning to enjoy their dinner when the train got under way. Sam had provided hot soup, fried oysters, fresh bread and cheese, red wine and hot coffee.

“Thank you for providing such elegant transportation, Mrs. James,” Jerry toasted his companion with a gesture of his wineglass. During recent minutes he had noticed that she was indeed wearing a plain gold ring on the third finger of her left hand; he wondered if it was the real thing, or part of her costume for this assignment. But that was none of his business.

“It’s my job,” she answered modestly, having glanced around to make sure that Sam was out of sight before she spoke. With the steady volume of noise that the cars made in motion, anyone who tried eavesdropping from around a corner was going to be out of luck.

“So,” said Jerry pleasantly. “I think that safe-deposit box was a good idea.”

“Yes indeed,” his companion agreed calmly.

Jerry hesitated, considering. He wanted to probe for more information, about Stanton, and in particular about the mysterious Lafe Baker, who was evidently hoping to arrange Jim Lockwood’s death. And about the testimony Jim Lockwood would be expected to provide, if and when he reached Washington alive. Yet he was afraid to ask questions, fearing to give himself away.

“How’s Stanton?” he asked at last.

“Him? How is he ever? Sickly little muck of a man with his gold-rimmed glasses and his great gray beard. Bullies and blusters those folk who are afraid to stand up to him. But he gets his job done, and two or three other men’s work beside, I’ll be thinkin’. When he finds corruption hell not put up with it, in Baker or anyone else.”

“And where is Baker now?”

“Ha, wish I knew. But we’re here, locked in on a moving train, and it’s not about to keep me awake tonight worryin’ about it.” Colleen looked again toward the corner of the passageway where Sam had vanished. “I wonder if our friend would bring us a tot of something to keep out the chill.” She looked at Jerry with sudden suspicion. “You’re not a drinkin’ man, now are you? I mean heavy?”

“No. Not so it becomes a problem. Almost never. I remember one occasion when wine got me into trouble—but right now I could use a tot of something too.”

Swaying to his feet with the motion of the train. Jerry made his way halfway across the parlor to an elegant little cupboard he had noticed earlier. The doors of the cupboard were unlocked, and when they were opened they revealed not only the bottles he had been hoping for, but a good selection of fine glassware as well. With a little gesture Jerry pulled out one bottle labeled brandy. There was no ice, of course, but what the hell, sometimes you had to rough it.

When he and his charming companion—really, she wasn’t at all bad looking—had toasted each other, he remarked: “I see there’s a sofa in the bedroom. Perhaps I’d better sleep in there. It might look a little strange to Sam if he found me out here on one of these.” And with his free hand Jerry patted the cushions beside him.

“I think perhaps you’re right. The sofa in the bedroom it should be for you.” The emphasis upon the second word in the last sentence was not all that heavy, but it was definitely there. “And now, if you don’t mind, Mr. James, I’m very tired.” Colleen looked uncertainly for a moment at her empty brandy glass, then smiled briefly and put it down—Sam would take care of it—and swayed to her feet against the motion of the train.

A few minutes later, going back to the kitchen-utility room to take his turn with the water closet, Jerry observed Sam, who was bedded down wrapped in a blanket on the floor beside the cookstove. The supper dishes had already been washed and stacked in a rack to dry. To all appearances their attendant was dead to the world.

Jerry paused for a moment, studying the sleeping man. A slave? No, surely not, here in the north. But had Sam perhaps been a slave at some point in his life, his living human body bought and sold? Almost certainly. The thought gave Jerry an eerie feeling.

Coming forward in the car again a few minutes later, Jerry once more passed the sleeping Sam, who did not appear to have moved a muscle. Moments later he entered the parlor and came to a dead stop.

Here in the parlor only one of the high-hung kerosene lanterns was still burning, the light somehow turned down to dim nightlight intensity. The door leading to the bedroom was closed. Seated in an armchair directly beneath the lantern, Pilgrim was waiting, his strong, compact body swaying lightly with the motion of the train. He frowned at Jerry but at first said nothing, as if he were waiting to hear what Jerry had to say.

Recovering from his initial surprise, Jerry at last moved forward again, to lean with both fists on the parlor table.

“Well?” he demanded. “Is the joke over? Had enough fun?”

The dark man in the chair sat with folded arms, shaking his head slowly. His face remained saturnine. “Would that it were all a joke, my friend. Would that it were.”

“I think you better tell me just what the hell is going on.”

“I shall do my best.” Pilgrim drew a deep breath and expelled it. Not far ahead, another train’s engine whistled sharply. “You have been drafted to carry out a rescue operation. At the moment it is not going well.”

The train swayed, rounding a curve, and the flame in the dim lantern swayed lightly with it. “Whatever it is you drafted me for, since you’re here now, I suggest you take over the operational details yourself, and send me home.”

“I should be delighted to take over, as you put it, and myself do everything that needs to be done. In fact nothing would please me more. But that is, I regret, not possible.”



“Let me see if I can begin to understand this. Your message on the talking watch indicated that the object of the rescue operation is Abraham Lincoln. And that if he can be saved from assassination, then there’s some chance of my resuming a normal life.”

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