After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

The only immediate effect on Jerry was that his departure from the hotel was probably noticed by no one at all.

Waiting just outside Willard’s side entrance was a dark police wagon, with small windows of heavy steel mesh. Jerry was hustled immediately into it. A moment later the horses were being cursed and beaten into motion, and they were off. He could feel the wagon turn in the general direction of the Capitol.

The younger and larger of the prisoner’s two escorts rode with him inside the wagon, and stared at him with heavy suspicion through the entire journey, saying nothing. Jerry responded by looking out the window, wondering how long the sudden emptiness in the pit of his stomach was going to last, how long it would take him to absorb his new reality. Maybe in a month, or even sooner, with the war officially at an end, Stanton—or whoever was having him arrested—would let him out of jail. He could set up selling petroleum, like Win Johnson back in Illinois. He—

Enough of that. He had an appointment he meant to keep at Ford’s, tomorrow evening.

Pilgrim might be able to help. Might. Jerry had been warned against counting on any help at all from that direction. It was Pilgrim’s fault that he was in this mess, and…

At this point it didn’t really matter whose fault it was.

Jerry was seated on a wooden bench, and there was not much to see through the high windows of the wagon, except for some springtime treetops and the fronts of buildings. The ride took only a few minutes, and when Jerry was hustled out of the conveyance again at the end of it, he was able to catch a quick glimpse of the Capitol dome, quite near at hand.

The wagon had stopped very close beside one of city’s many large stone buildings; this one, by its heavily barred windows, was obviously a prison or police station. He noticed that here too, for some reason, his escort preferred to use the side entrance, off the busy street.

Once inside the gloomy fortress, the prisoner was conducted through one locked door after another. He was searched again, by the same men who had arrested him, and everything taken out of his pockets, including of course his money and his watch. His hat, coat, tie, and boots were also confiscated.

Ignoring his protests, the two men silently thrust Jerry into a small solitary cell. The door slammed shut.

Their footsteps in the corridor outside died away. Otherwise there was quiet.

His cell was lighted by one small window, more like a ventilator, too small for a man to squeeze through even if it had not been barred and positioned just below the eight-foot ceiling. For furniture there was a built-in wooden bench, and under the bench an empty bucket that smelled like what it was, an unsanitized latrine.

Jerry settled himself on the bench, stared at the door that was solid wood except for a small peephole, and waited for what might happen next. He was already convinced that it would be a waste of breath to send screams down the empty corridor outside.

He leaned his head back against the wall, realized it felt damp and slimy, and sat erect again. Presently he closed his eyes. Maybe when he opened them, Pilgrim would be sitting beside him on the bench, ready to give him another pep talk. Pilgrim gave the worst pep talks Jerry had ever heard, but he felt that he could use another one about now. But when Jerry opened his eyes again, he was still alone.

He wondered if the thugs who had arrested him were estimating the value of his watch, maybe arguing over who would get to keep it. Or did they plan to sell it and split the proceeds? Well, there was nothing that Jerry could do about it if they were. Nothing he could do about anything, not until someone opened the door to his cell. Which surely ought to happen soon.

The hours passed slowly in prison. The light from the window changed slightly, gradually, in its quality as the sun, somewhere on the other side of the building, made its unhurried way across the sky. He had until tomorrow night. Tomorrow night. Jerry warned himself to keep his nerve. Stanton—or whoever—couldn’t possibly just leave him sitting here until then. Could he?

At a time Jerry judged to be somewhere around mid-afternoon, a jailer at last appeared, carrying a jug of water and two pieces of bread on a tin plate. The man was sullenly unresponsive to all questions, and disappeared again as soon as he had accomplished his delivery. Jerry drank gratefully, then chewed meditatively on the bread, thankful for his good, strong, heavily fluoridated twentieth-century teeth. As if drawn by the scent of food, a couple of mice now appeared in a far corner of the little cell, wriggling their noses. Maybe, their cellmate thought hopefully, the presence of mice was a sign that there would not be rats.

Maybe he was being too quiet, too stoic. When he had finished as much as he could chew of the bread, he went to the door with its half-open peep-hole and yelled at full volume down the hallway outside. From somewhere out there another series of maniacal yells echoed and mocked his own; evidently he was not, after all, the only prisoner in the building. But there was no other result.

He alternately paced his cell and sat down on the bench to rest. The hours passed. Nothing happened.

—and then Jerry, fallen asleep sitting on the wooden bench, awoke with a start in the darkness when a key rattled loudly in the lock of his cell’s door. A moment later, the same two men who had arrested him came in, the younger of the two carrying a lantern.

Without a word of explanation Jerry was jerked to his feet, then hustled out of his cell and down the darkened corridor. The doors of other cells, whether occupied or empty, were all closed. The lantern made a moving, bobbing patch of light.

They took him down another dark stairway. Or maybe it was the same one by which he had been brought in, Jerry could not be sure.

When they had reached what Jerry thought was the ground floor, the two jailers brought him into an office, or at least a room containing some desks and chairs and filing cabinets. There was a notable absence of paperwork for a real office, and the place had a disused air about it. No one else was in the room. The lantern was put down on a desk which had an empty chair behind it, and Jerry was made to stand facing the desk.

On the wide, scarred wooden surface of the desk the things that had been taken from him had been laid out, except for the money, being notable only by its absence. There were Jim Lockwood’s hat, and coat, and boots. There was Pilgrim’s watch. When Jerry held his breath he was able to hear the timepiece ticking. There was the room key for his hotel, and there were his two theater tickets for tomorrow night.

When he stretched his neck just a little, he could see that the hands of the watch indicated a little after seven. The metal faceplate, though not the glass, had been swung open, as if someone had wondered whether something might be concealed inside.

For almost a minute after their arrival there was no sound in the room except for an occasional belch from one of the jailers, and the soft but substantial ticking of the watch. Presently a door behind the desk opened, and a man stepped through carrying a lighted lamp. He was hatless, dressed in dark, nondescript civilian clothes. In his late thirties, Jerry estimated. Sandy hair and beard. Only a little taller than Jerry but more powerfully built.

“Colonel,” said one of the men behind Jerry. It was only a kind of verbal salute, for the sandy-haired one responded to it with a casual gesture of his right hand, after he had set down his lamp beside the lantern on the desk.

Unhurriedly the Colonel seated himself, adjusting both lamp and lantern so that he remained in comparative darkness, while a maximum amount of glare was directed toward the prisoner. The prisoner, accustomed to electric light, might under other circumstances have found laughable this attempt to make him squint.

Then the man behind the desk leaned forward in his chair, putting his blue-gray eyes and sandy whiskers in the light. When he spoke he came straight to the point. “Who’re you really workin’ for, Lockwood?”

“Sir, whoever you are, my name is Paul Pilgrim. I don’t know why these men brought me—”

One of the men who was standing behind Jerry cuffed him on the back of the head, hard enough to make his ears ring. A hard voice behind him said: “Stow that. Give the Colonel a fair answer, or, by God, you’ll wish you had.”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred