After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

“I trust I won’t.” Jerry spoke just as softly. He tried to smile. “I don’t believe I find myself among the friends of Old Abe at the moment.”

“There are no friends of tyrants here.”

This was in a new voice, resonant and easy to remember. Jerry turned to face the doorway. There was the actor himself, elegantly dressed, standing with a hand on each side of the frame and regarding Jerry with a slight frown. Booth went on: “I believe I have encountered you somewhere before, sir.”

“Jeremiah Flint of Texas, Mr. Booth. We met at your hotel yesterday, and you were good enough to autograph a playbill for my sister.”

“Ah yes.”

“I might have spoken to you of other matters then, but you were not alone; you were engaged with this gentleman, whose identity I did not know.” Jerry nodded at the tall youth beside him. “Since then I have been arrested. Early this morning, at my own hotel, Willard’s. Today I was kept all day in prison. Beginning this evening I was questioned by someone I believe to be Colonel Lafayette C. Baker himself. I managed to get away, but not without giving and receiving some slight damage.” He raised his left arm gingerly. When the sleeve fell back a little, an empurpled lump the size of a small egg showed on the side of his wrist. He could feel another, smaller, on the back of his head, and he was ready to present it as additional evidence if needed.

“How could you get away?” This, in a disbelieving voice, came from the older woman.

Jerry turned to her with what he hoped was a frank and open gaze. “It sounds incredible, I know. They—Baker and two of his men—had me in a jail somewhere near the Capitol. I was brought in through a side entrance, and when the chance came I walked out the same way. I have the feeling that most of the people there did not know of my presence, or the Colonel’s either. I even had the impression that he himself might have been in that building secretly. We were quite apart from the other officers and prisoners there.” He sipped at the cup of water the girl had now put down in front of him.

“Were you followed here?” the woman demanded sharply.

“Madam, I am certain that I was not.”

“What did they want of you?” Booth asked. He had folded his arms now, and his eyes were probing at Jerry relentlessly.

“The names of some of my friends in Texas. But they learned nothing.”

“And how did you manage to escape?”

“Baker—if it was he—sent his men out of the room in which he had begun to ask me questions. Evidently he hoped to hear from me something that he wanted to keep secret even from his own men. He thought he had already—disabled me.” Jerry raised his left arm gingerly. “But it turned out he had not.”

Something, a spontaneous mixture of envy, admiration, and despair, blazed for a moment in Booth’s face; but he masked his feelings quickly and stood silent, thinking.

“I had heard,” the older woman said, “that Lafe Baker was currently in New York.”

“What,” asked Booth, “did this interrogator look like?” When Jerry had described the man behind the desk, the actor commented thoughtfully: “That does sound like Lafe Baker himself. But I too had heard that he was in New York.” He paused, creating a moment full of stage presence and effect. “So you are from Texas, Mr. Flint. May I ask, without probing into any private matters, what you are doing now in Washington?”

Jerry took a deep breath. He had anticipated this question, but still he thought his answer over carefully before he gave it. He was reasonably sure that these people did not really believe his story—yet. Much was going to depend upon his answer, and he was trying to remember something that Jan Chen had told him.

“I consider myself,” he answered finally, “a soldier of the Confederacy, seeking upon my own responsibility to find what duty I can do here for my cause.” And he dug in the side pocket of his coat—slowly and carefully, with the strong lad and Booth both watching—and brought out a heavy bunch of keys.

Jerry tossed them with a jingling thud onto the middle of the kitchen table. “Those,” he added, “are Lafe Baker’s. I have not examined them closely, but they may bear some evidence of ownership.”

The strong man grabbed up the keys, then stood holding them in his hand, not knowing what to do next. Booth scarcely looked at the keys. His lips had parted slightly when he heard Jerry’s answer. Again envy and admiration crossed the actor’s face, this time mingled with awe rather than despair; it was as if he had just heard Revelation. Again the expression did not appear to have been calculated. He stood silent, staring at Jerry and making new assessments.

“Or else,” said the older woman to Jerry, in a still-suspicious voice, “you are one of Pinkerton’s agents. Or—” She had begun now to look closely at the keys in the young man’s hand, and something about them evidently proved convincing. Her tone of accusation faltered.

“Pinkerton,” said Booth sharply, “has been in New Orleans for a long time, out of the business more than a year. No, look at Mr. Flint’s injury. I think he is an authentic hero for having achieved such an escape, and we cannot refuse to help him.” He became courtly again. “Introductions have been delayed, but let us have them now. Mr.

Flint, this is Mrs. Surrat, the kindly landlady of this establishment. And this is her lovely daughter, Anna.” Anna, flustered, tried to curtsy.

Next Booth nodded toward the powerful young man. “My good friend and associate, Lewis Paine.”

Jerry’s good right hand was almost crushed in a silent handshake from the youth. Meanwhile Booth went on: “And my acquaintance Mr. Ned Spangler, who works as a sceneshifter at Ford’s. Mrs. Surrat, Anna—Mr. Flint deserves the best of hospitality. What is there to eat?”

“He’s welcome to a supper.” Mrs. Surrat began to bestir herself, then paused. “But he can’t hide here. There’s no place for him to sleep.”

Booth started to frown, then appeared to be amused. “Very well, I’ll find another place for him. Lewis, show the gentleman where he can wash up.”

“Right, Cap’n.”

Ten minutes later Jerry, having removed some of the scum of prison from his face and hands, was back at the table in the kitchen, whose windows were now securely curtained against any observation from outside. Pork chops and greens and fried potatoes were put before him on a tin plate, and he needed little urging to dig in. Paine leaned in a doorway, heavy arms folded, watching Jerry eat; Spangler and young Anna had both disappeared. Booth, an enameled cup of steaming coffee in front of him, rose from the chair opposite Jerry’s to welcome him back.

“I suppose—” Booth began, then turned his head sharply, listening; held up a hand for silence.

Mrs. Surrat, at the sink, glanced at him but then went on rattling pans in water. Evidently the landlady here was used to conspiratorial maneuvers.

“Who was that?” Booth asked in a low voice of Spangler, who was just coming in from the front room.

“Only Weichmann.” Ned stood blinkly at them all stupidly; he had brought fresh whiskey fumes into the kitchen with him.

“Who’s Weichmann?” Jerry asked.

“A young War Department clerk,” Booth informed him in low voice, turning back to face the table, “who boards here. I fear his sympathies are not with us, though he’s an old friend of the landlady’s son.”

Mrs. Surrat turned from the sink, drying her hands on a towel, evidently willing to leave the dishes soaking until tomorrow when presumably there would be kitchen help. She looked at Jerry, and for the first time favored him with a trace of a smile. “You will wish to get out of Washington, I suppose.”

“Yes. When I am satisfied that… that there is nothing more for me to do here, yes. ” Jerry nodded. He had turned to face Mrs. Surrat, but he was aware of Booth watching him keenly. Only twenty-four hours, Jerry was thinking. I must have that much more time, free, here in the city. When I am through at Ford’s, whatever the outcome there, then all of these people can go—

Mrs. Surrat asked him: “Where will you want to go?”

Jerry allowed his face to show the weariness he felt. “A good question. I’m afraid that I no longer have any country left.”

Lewis Paine, leaning in the doorway, shook his head in gloomy agreement. Booth actually let out a small cry, as of pain; but when Jerry turned to look at him the actor, his face a study in tragedy, was nodding agreement too. “Now that Lee has surrendered…” Booth allowed his words to trail off.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred