After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

The Colonel was smiling now, and this time his voice was confidential, almost warm and friendly. “Who’re you workin’ for?” he repeated. By this time Jerry had no doubt that this was Colonel Lafayette C. Baker. Right now Jerry was ready to settle for Stanton.

Jerry was also close enough to hysteria to imagine that he was able to see the humor in the situation. He had to laugh, and he did.

They let him laugh for a little while, the men standing behind him taking their cue from the appreciative grin on the Colonel’s face. Jerry in turn appreciated their tolerance. After a while he got himself under control again and said: “I’m working for myself, if you want to know the truth.”

Colonel Baker took his statement in good humor. “By God, ain’t it the truth, though? Ain’t we all doin’ that?” He indulged in a chuckle of his own, then rubbed his bearded chin as if to mime the behavior of a deep thinker. “I’m all for adopting a philosophical viewpoint in these matters.” His voice had become less countrified, as if adjusting to match Jerry’s. “Yes, I’ll go along with that.” The Colonel’s eyes altered. “Long as you realize, in turn, I mean to have a little more out of you than just philosophy.”

“Oh, I’ll tell you more than that,” said Jerry, not wanting to get hit again. But even as he promised information, he was wondering just what sort he was going to provide. It certainly wasn’t going to be the truth. There would be no safety for him in that.

“I know you will, son,” said Baker in a kindly way. “Sometime tonight… say, don’t I know you from somewhere? Ever been in San Francisco?”

“No sir.”

“How ’bout the army?”


“Mebbe not. Don’t suppose it matters.” The sandy-haired man squinted at Jerry a little longer, then put out a hand on the desk and pushed most of Jerry’s property, the hat and coat and boots and valuables, out of his way, toward one side. Then from the cluttered desktop Baker’s hand picked up another item that Jerry had not noticed until now. It was, Jerry saw, slightly flexible, long as a rolling pin and almost as thick. The Colonel’s fingers toyed with this cross between a club and a blackjack, turning it over, then rolled it gently back and forth on the worn wooden surface.

Jerry began to wonder whether the special talents Pilgrim had talked about might really save him if he was killed, or whether he and perhaps Pilgrim had dreamed them up. Of course he might come to wish he was dead, long before these people killed him.

The Colonel showed a few yellow teeth. Leering as if it might be the start of a dirty joke, he asked Jerry, “You know a woman calls herself Colleen Monahan?”

Jerry let himself think about that question. “No,” he said at last, and wondered how long he was going to be able to stick to that.

“Goddam.” The Colonel expressed an abstract kind of wonder, as if at some amazing natural phenomenon. “You’re still thinkin’ you can tell me lies and not get hurt for it.” The man behind the desk marveled at such an attitude, as if he had never encountered any precedent for it. His manner and expression said that he was entering uncharted territory, and he was going to have to think a while before he could determine what best to do about it.

But of course there was only one thing to do about it, really. At last he took the truncheon in hand decisively and stood up and came around from behind the desk. Then he paused, as if suddenly aware that more thinking might be required. And then, meeting the eyes of his two henchmen and making a gesture, he silently indicated that he wanted them out of the room.

“Sir?” the one with the gray mustache questioned, doubtfully.

“Go on. I’ll yell if I need help.” And then without warning Baker swung his little club in a hard overhand stroke.

A perfect street-fighter’s move; Jerry had just time to think. He also barely had time to get his arms up into a blocking position, fists clenched, forearms making a deep V, so that neither arm took quite the full force of the weighted weapon. The left arm took most of it, too much, high up near the wrist. Jerry felt first the numbing shock and then the pain; he was sure that a bone must have been broken. He collapsed helplessly to one knee, holding his wrist, eyes half-closed in a grimace of pain. It’s broken, was all that he could think.

Dimly he was aware that the two henchmen, without further argument, had gone out of the room. Colonel Baker was locking the door behind them. Then he turned back to Jerry, as friendly-looking as ever.

“Now, Son Lockwood. Nobody but me is gonna hear it when you tell me who you and that bitch Monahan are really workin’ for. I got my own reasons for confidentiality. Actually I know already, but I want to hear it from you. And I want to hear who else might be on my tail, workin’ directly for the same person.”

Jerry, gradually becoming able to see and think again, got to his feet. He backed away slowly as Baker advanced on him, gently swinging the club in his right hand.

There wasn’t much room in this office to maneuver, forward, back, or sideways. And Jerry’s left arm was useless whether it was actually broken or not. He couldn’t, he absolutely couldn’t, hit or grab or block anything with that arm just now. Not if his life depended on it.

He wasn’t going to be able to block another blow from that club, with either hand. He’d have to dodge instead. And then—

“You can’t hide behind that desk, son. You can’t hide at all. Know where I’m gonna put the next lick? Right in the kidneys. You’ll piss blood for a month or so. And you’ll feel the next one, too. That last one didn’t hurt a-tall.”

Jerry moved behind the desk, then out from behind it on the other side. The man was right, there was no use his attempting to hide behind the furniture. He shifted his feet, kicking aside a tobacco-stained little rug to make a smoother footing.

Baker, pleased to see this little preparation for some kind of resistance, was moving forward, supremely confident. “Tell you what, son—”

Jerry’s roundhouse kick with the right foot came in horizontally under Baker’s guard, at an angle probably unexpectable by any nineteenth-century American street-fighter. The ball of his foot took its target in the ribs. In practice Jerry had seldom kicked any inanimate target as hard as this; he thought from the feel of the impact that he might have broken bone.

Lafe Baker’s bulging eyes bulged even more. The round red mouth above the ruddy beard opened wider, in an almost silent O of sheer astonishment.

Jerry stepped forward, shifting his weight, and fired his right hand straight at that bearded jaw. His victim was already slumping back, and down, and the punch connected under the right eye. Jerry could feel a pain of impact in his practice-toughened knuckles. Baker’s backward movement accelerated. He hit his head on the side of his own desk as he went down, and his head clanged into the brass halo of the spittoon.

For a moment Jerry hovered over his fallen enemy, resisting the impulse to kick him again; the Colonel would not be getting up during the next five minutes. Baker’s head rested against the side of the heavy desk, and the spittoon, half tipped over, made a hard pillow for him. The sandy beard was beginning to marinate in stale tobacco juice. Only an uneven, shuddering breathing showed the man was still alive.

A moment longer Jerry hovered over him indecisively, trying to think. Then he sprang to the desk and began to reclaim his belongings, putting on the clothes and stuffing the other items hastily into his pockets. No use, he thought, trying to find the money. The all-important watch was still ticking away serenely, and he kissed it before he tucked it into his watch pocket and secured the chain. And there, safely in his hands again, were the theater tickets for Friday night.

Now Jerry hesitated briefly once more. Was there something else?

On impulse he crouched over Baker once more, reaching inside the man’s coat, coming up with a large, mean-looking revolver. He also discovered and abstracted a fat bunch of keys.

Dropping the keys in his own pocket, Jerry grabbed the Colonel by his collar and dragged him behind the desk where he would be a great deal less conspicuous. Then, with the revolver in his right hand held out of sight behind him, Jerry went to the door. He turned the lock—he found that he could use his left hand a little now, as long as he didn’t think about it—and stuck his head out into the badly-lighted hallway.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred