After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

“All right.” Jerry turned his head toward the Smithsonian, where he could now see figures moving within the thinning mist. “Some people are going in over there.”

“There are people who live there, the director and his family. Also some of the learned men who come there to work.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Still, the Colonel’s men will not be likely to look for us in there, I think. We’ll go in, if we can.”

They rose from their bench and walked to the building. At the front door a sign informed them that visitors were not admitted until eight.

To kill the half hour or so remaining, they strolled among the flower beds. Conversation was limited. Jerry, stealing glances at his companion’s face, her hair, her throat, found himself beginning to think what he considered were crazy thoughts. But he went on thinking them anyway.

Colleen passed some money to Jerry so he would be able to pay for their admission when the time came. At eight o’clock a dour ticket-seller let them into the museum, the day’s first visitors. The building looked new, but the dim, cavernous rooms were already dusty and had the smell of age. These people, he thought, badly needed lessons in museum management, along with a great many other things.

On impulse he took Colleen’s hand, but she pulled it free, saying: “Look at your fine watch now and then. Don’t let’s dally here past a quarter to nine.”

“All right.”

The two of them walked among endless glass cases with dark wood frames, arrayed with endless labeled trays of arrowheads and fossil teeth. They looked at skeletons and fosils in cabinets, and had time to stick their noses into the library.

It appeared that Colleen could not remain totally angry at him for long. “Are you a reading man, Jerry?”

“I used to be. I’ll be one again, when this is over. The war, I mean—and everything. And what about you, Colleen Monahan? Is that your real name?”

“Colleen’s mine. And Monahan’s my maiden name, though I’ve used others.” She sighed. “And oh, yes, I would like to be a reader. Sit in a cozy parlor and drink tea and read.” She ran her hand along a row of books. “Some day…”

“Listen, I…” And then Jerry ran out of words altogether. It was a crazy thing to do, but he put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him fully, and kissed her. How odd that she had to turn her face up at an angle. He always thought of her, somehow, as being the same height he was, and here she was several inches shorter.

Some time passed before she pulled away.

“Colleen, I—”

“No. Say nothing about it now.”

“I just—”

“Say nothing, I tell you. Not now. Later.”

Hand in hand, now, they continued to tour the exhibits, though Jerry at least looked at them without really seeing anything.

He was certain that the minutes must be racing by swiftly. There were moments when Jerry was almost able to forget his evening appointment at Fords. He pretended to himself to hope that Colleen had forgotten about Stanton.

“Jerry? The time?”

He pulled out his watch and looked at it. No use trying to stretch things out here any longer. “Quarter to nine,” he admitted.

“Time to go, then.”

“Time to go.”

He could feel her reluctance, along with her determination, as they left the museum. Like an ordinary strolling couple, they walked along the Mall toward Washington’s unfinished shaft. A few more people were about now. The sun was well up now, the morning fog completely burned away. High cloudiness clung to the sky. Jerry kept expecting Lafe Baker’s men to burst into view somewhere, on horseback with guns drawn like a gang of rustlers in an old-time movie. But things weren’t done that way in the city, not in the daytime anyway. If for no other reason, there was always too much cavalry around, ready to take a hand in any disturbance.

Colleen led him north on the Fourteenth Street bridge over the canal. From the north end of the bridge it was only one block to the southeast corner of the President’s Park. A narrow footpath between the canal and the fence guarding the Park brought them to Seventeenth Street where they turned north again. In minutes they were approaching the main building of the War Department from its publicly accessible side. Now they moved among the usual daytime throng of people.

Colleen knew her way in through the outer obstacles posed by armed uniformed sentries and plainclothes guards. In a crowded vestibule it took her two minutes to learn that Mr. Stanton was seeing no one this morning, being again closeted in his office with General Grant. Jerry, enjoying the temporary reprieve, could imagine the questions the two men were deciding on how was the great war effort to be shut down: what military contracts should be canceled, and so on. And what size was the peacetime army going to be? That last would depend, of course, on what policy should be adopted toward the conquered South. Probably it would depend to some extent on who was President next week, next year.

Colleen and Jerry waited in the lobby of the War Department, at last finding a place to sit on a bench in a relatively remote hall. Few words passed between them; they had plenty to talk about but none of it was suitable for public discussion. Colleen made sure that from where she sat she could see the door that Stanton would ordinarily use, going in and out. Several times she sprang to her feet, evidently having picked up some hint that the Secretary might be about to appear. But these were false alarms.

At eleven o’clock she went to a desk to try again. Jerry meditated trying to sneak out while she was thus engaged, thus putting an effective end to the possibility of any relationship but enmity. But it would really be better that way, wouldn’t it? For both of them? But he held back. There were still nine hours or more before his appointment, and he had no idea of where he would go if he left this building now. Anyway, Colleen kept turning round to smile at him—it was a bitter, knowing smile, not tender at all. He wouldn’t have more than a few seconds’ start—and, anyway, if he ran out now, and Colleen did not invoke a swift and effective pursuit—or merely shoot him in the back—there would still be Lafe Baker to deal with.

This time when Colleen came back to him from the desk, even her false smile had disappeared; she was fuming. “Mr. Secretary Stanton has gone to the White House. Cabinet meeting. Never mind, maybe we can catch him there. The President is going to want to take a look at you anyway, when he hears your story.” She smiled at Jerry wickedly and added softly: “Sneak out on me again, and I’ll scream bloody treason. If I do that in here, or in the White House, you may be punctured by a bayonet or two, but you won’t run far.”

Jerry smiled the best smile that he could muster, and did as he was told.

As they were walking across the broad lawn that separated War Department from White House, Colleen asked him quietly: “How did you get Lockwood’s key for the safe-deposit box in Chicago?”

“The two of us were friends, out west. I—owed him something. Before he died he had my word for it that I would see to it that the job he had begun got finished.” Jerry had now been long enough in the nineteenth century to feel some hope that a claim like that might be accepted.

“And what about the signature at the bank?”

“I did the best I could to copy the way his signature looked on the page. I don’t think the clerk really looked at it anyway.”

“Whenever I signed, he only looked at me. Leered at me is more like it.” She sighed faintly. “Well, Jeremiah. It’s a great mess you’ve put us both into. But now that the war is over I suppose we might manage to come out of it alive. If this new story that you’re tellin’ me is true.”

“Oh, it’s true, right enough.”

Now she was looking at Jerry’s vest, looped by a silvery chain. “The watch is Jim’s too, I suppose.”

“The watch? No, it’s my own.”

“I see.” He couldn’t tell if that question and answer had really meant anything or not.

There were a dozen people, more or less, hanging around the north entrance to the White House, the door directly below the window from which Lincoln had given his speech on Tuesday night. The gathering right at the door included a couple of guards, and a couple of men arguing with one of the guards. The others present, white and black, well-dressed and poor, were loitering in the background.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred