After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

Now, he thought, would be the ideal time for him to hire a horse, as she had suggested before they parted. If he only knew how to ride one.

Rather than take that risk Jerry walked on, along the road Colleen’s driver had taken. Luck was with him; in about ten minutes he overtook a wagonload of produce whose driver had stopped at roadside to mend a broken harness. For a few coins Jerry bought passage, and climbed into the rear of the wagon, where he would be able to lie almost concealed among the burlap bundles of early asparagus, the crates of eggs and chickens. He gave his destination as somewhere near Pennsylvania Avenue—from his schoolboy visit to the modern city he remembered enough of the geography to know that White House and Capitol would both be in that area. That meant that necessarily there would be crowds into which an alien visitor might safely blend.

He could remember someone, somewhere aboard the roaring confusion of trains between here and Chicago, claiming that there were two hundred thousand people in the city of Washington now. The listeners on the train, Jerry remembered now, had seemed impressed by that number.

When the wagon had jolted on for a while—in blessed lack of soot, and relative silence—Jerry raised his head to look about him. And sure enough, there in the hazed distance was the dome of the Capitol at last. For a moment he could almost believe it was the modern city that lay before him.

During the long hours spent staring out the windows of one jolting railroad car after another, Jerry had considered that once he had escaped from Colleen he might hide out in the suburbs until Friday. Either in the actual suburbs of Washington—they had to exist in some form, he thought—or on some nearby farm. But he had never been satisfied with that idea. A stranger who didn’t know his way around, particularly one who behaved in any way oddly, would be bound to be conspicuous anywhere in countrified surroundings. In the center of the city, though, say between the White House and Capitol, right in the middle of the crowd, there ought to be more strangers, including foreign diplomats and visitors, than anyone would bother counting. This was, after all, the capital city of a sizable nation.

There would also be plenty of Baker’s men in town, Jerry assumed—but the point was that even if some of those men could recognize their fellow secret agent Jim Lockwood, they still wouldn’t know Jerry Flint from Adam. And no one would be passing around photographs.

Except, of course, that the two men who had tried to kill him on the train had known whom they were after, and they might be able to recognize him again. One of those men, at least, had fallen from the speeding train and might well be dead now, or at least in no shape for action. And Jerry doubted they could be here already—but if they were, they were. Trumping all other arguments, he, Jerry, was basically a city man, and he trusted the instinct that urged him to seek out a crowd in which to maneuver.

Staying low in the wagon, surrounded by the bundles of asparagus and the crated chickens, Jerry didn’t see much of the city as it grew up around him. The sound and rhythm of the horse were soothing after days of trains—anything would be soothing after that, he thought. He could hear the gradual increase of the traffic round him, music, human voices, roosters crowing. Once a squad of blue-clad Union cavalry came cantering close past the wagon, the faces of men neither old nor young looking down at him incuriously. Then the cavalry was gone.

It was something of a dirty trick he’d played on Colleen, Jerry mused, leaning back on a sack of produce and watching the formation of spring clouds overhead. He could only hope she’d had no more trouble with Baker’s people. At best she would be reporting to Stanton a success that would fail to materialize, and Jerry felt rotten about that. But he considered that he had had no choice. He was committed to serve that tricky snake who called himself Pilgrim, in some plan that Jerry didn’t really understand at all. How could Lincoln’s life be saved by transmitting a signal, operating a beacon of any kind, at a moment when the fatal bullet was already on the way to its target? And supposing Lincoln’s life could be saved in such a way, wouldn’t a lot of familiar history necessarily be lost?

The tops of some relatively tall buildings, three and four stories high, were now coming into sight above the piles of produce that surrounded Jerry. At last the wagon stopped. The farmer’s bearded face came into view, as he twisted round from his seat to stare at his passenger in silence. Jerry sat up straight; a quick glimpse of the Capitol dome assured him that he was at least somewhere near the destination he had bargained for.

He scrambled to his feet, handed over another coin as had been agreed, and hopped out of the wagon with his carpetbag. The wagon rolled away. A few passers-by, black and white, cast curious glances at the young man who had thus arrived in their midst, and now stood on the sidewalk dusting himself off. But no one said anything. Surveying the crowd, Jerry saw more blacks here than he had seen anywhere en route; some of them looking happy as if they were high on drugs, others wretched. All of them presently in sight were very poorly dressed.

Jerry hoisted his bag and walked off briskly, joining the flow of pedestrians where it was thickest. Here, he noticed, the sidewalk was made of brick. Washington was quite the metropolis.

He circled around the block, first clockwise and then counterclockwise, making sure to the best of his ability that he was still not being followed. Then, after one false start, he made his way to Pennsylvania Avenue, which as he remembered ran between the Capitol and the White House, which last structure now seemed blocked from view by red-brick office buildings under construction. The Washington Monument came into view, surprising Jerry by being in an obviously unfinished state, much shorter than he remembered it.

His next surprise was the sight of a horse-drawn rail car, carrying a crowd of passengers down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. He soon discovered that brick sidewalks were by no means universal here; they had been laid down in a few places, but as in the towns and cities of Illinois, wood or mud prevailed everywhere else. Here too poultry and livestock were in the streets, pigs rooting in the mud.

Above all here in Washington, there were many uniforms, more than anywhere else. Bodies of troops marched or rode horses through the streets, others appeared standing around or joining in the general flow of pedestrian traffic.

Long hours on the cars spent listening to others’ conversations had provided Jerry with a great many fragments of information. One pertinent item he had filed away was that Willard’s Hotel was the most prestigious place for a traveler to stay in Washington. It stood on Pennsylvania Avenue, no more than a couple of blocks from the White House, just across the street from a large structure called the Armory, and a little over a mile from the Capitol at what appeared to be the other end of Pennsylvania. Standing on the sidewalk outside Willard’s now, Jerry considered that if the lobby was any indication the place had to be overcrowded. All the better, from his point of view. He had money—at least Pilgrim had not stinted on that. If he couldn’t bribe his way into a room, he couldn’t, but he thought that it was worth a try.

A sign outside the hotel boasted that all its rooms were equipped with running water. After five days—or was it six?—of steady railroad travel, that decided matters.

Making his way in to the desk, Jerry learned from a clerk that it was very doubtful that there were any rooms available. But at that point a twenty-dollar gold piece laid unobtrusively on the desk worked wonders. On impulse he scratched his name on the register as Paul Pilgrim, of Springfield, Illinois.

The upper room where Jerry found himself was small, but otherwise luxurious. It did indeed boast running water in a small sink, and a flush toilet in an adjoining private closet, but hot water was something else again; maybe only the luxury suites had that piped in. No great problem for the wealthy guest. A few more coins brought a procession of black men to Jerry’s door carrying a portable tub, along with hot kettles and steaming pails. In a few minutes the tub, resting on his thick bedroom carpet, was filled and steaming.

Jerry spent a few moments in unpacking his bag. Then he stripped and shaved and soaked in the hot tub, trying to ease the endless jounce and chatter of rails out of his joints, to remove from his skin the layers of grease and grime and soot.

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