After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

The interior was a single dirt-floored room with a back doorway that opened onto a shallow closet or shed. The only light entered through a single small translucent window of what Jerry supposed might be oiled paper. Two or three small children were underfoot; at the potbellied stove in one corner a black woman of indeterminate age, shabby and barefoot, her hair tied up in a kerchief like that of Scarlett O’Hara’s Mammy, turned to the visitor a face stoic in its wrinkles.

Mose and the woman—Jerry could not tell if she was his mother, or what—conversed briefly. Jerry thought he could catch an English word at intervals, but most of the dialogue, at least to his perception, was truly in some other language.

Presently Mose turned back to him. “You can stay here, Mistah Lockwood. For a few hours anyway. I shall be back when it gets dark, if not before.”

“Thanks. If you see Colleen—well, she will be safer if she does not know where I am.”

Mose looked troubled, but he nodded.

“Thank you for your help, Mose. This will be a very great help to me indeed.”

The youth, turned suddenly inarticulate, nodded again. Then he was gone.

Jerry retreated into the hut, and sat down on one end of the only bed; he couldn’t see anything else to sit on, except a small table that was fully occupied at the moment, with pots and pans that looked as if they might have been salvaged from a scrap pile. He smiled tentatively at the woman, and tried to speak to her, but she remained deadpan silent.

Time passed. Eventually slow footsteps were heard outside the curtain, which was pushed back. The woman hurried to greet the new arrival, a graying man as ageless as herself who was carrying a rusty shovel. The new arrival was not as poker-faced as she, and his expression on seeing Jerry went through a whole actor’s repertory of responses.

The two held conversation in what sounded to Jerry like the same dialect used by the woman and Mose. At length the graying man put down his shovel and went out. He returned in a few minutes, bringing water in a battered bucket, and offered Jerry a dipperful.

“Thank you.” Jerry reached for the dipper, while his host and hostess smiled and nodded welcome. Jerry was thirsty, and the water tasted good—though the look of the pail and dipper suggested the possibility of typhoid. That, thought Jerry, would probably be among the least of his problems, even if he caught it. Meanwhile the man had produced a chair from somewhere and invited the guest to sit in it. There seemed to be a general reluctance on the part of the householders to speak to him at all; it was hard for Jerry to believe they could not manage something close to white folks’ English if they tried. But now that he was here, and his presence had been acknowledged by the offering of water, they seemed to prefer to ignore him. Not a bad attitude, Jerry realized on second thought, to take with regard to a guest who must be somehow involved in intelligence work. Only the tiny children, grandchildren here probably, two of them entirely naked except for shirts that had once been cloth bags, interrupted their play now and then to stare at him with frank curiosity. At last he had to smile at them; and felt in his pockets, only to be reminded that his only money was the small amount remaining from what Colleen had given him. Only a little more than two dollars, and he might encounter some unforeseen expense in the five hours remaining before show time. Still he decided that he could spare a penny for each child.

Whatever the reason for the shy silence of the adults, he was willing to respect it. Sitting in the hard chair, he took out Pilgrim’s watch and flipped the lid—a quarter after three. Jerry imagined the ticking was getting louder. The air in the hut was beginning to turn oppressively close. Little light and air came in through the innumerable crevices in the walls. His left arm was beginning to ache again.

Soon the woman began cooking something on the stove, boiling potatoes with some kind of greens—the man, coming back into the shack from one of his trips outside, offered Jerry a plate, but he turned it down with thanks, thinking from the looks of the cookpot that he had eaten more for lunch than these people were likely to get today altogether. He drank another dipper of water, and asked his host about an outhouse. Reminding Jerry with a grim look that he was supposed to be in hiding, the old man brought him a chipped chamber pot, and pointed him through the back door into the attached shed.

Between distractions, Jerry did the best he could to lay his plans for the evening. He decided that a few minutes before eight o’clock, when he judged a more or less steady flow of people would be arriving for the play, he would slip down the alley to Tenth Street, go to the door of the theater, present his ticket as inconspicuously as possible, and walk in. He could think of no reason why anyone should be looking for him at Ford’s, unless Pilgrim had come up with another nasty surprise for him. And somehow the day passed. At a quarter to seven by Jerry’s watch the sun was setting.

The curtain was supposed to go up at eight on Our American Cousin. A few minutes before that time, Jerry said quiet thanks to his hosts and eased out of his hiding place. Trying his best to be inconspicuous, he made his way among the shanties, through the alley, and out onto Tenth Street. Men equipped with ladders, and long candles shielded in metal cans, were going about lighting the streetlamps. Near the theater there was, as he had hoped, already a crowd, with wagons and carriages drawing up in the street, and people walking toward the theater.

Jerry had a two-days growth of beard, and his clothes, except for the coat, itself unchanged since Thursday morning, were neither neat nor clean. Still the standards of the time were not that demanding, and he thought he could get by. As he walked toward Ford’s, trying to appear the casual theatergoer, he did his best to confront his situation realistically.

On the plus side, Booth would not expect anyone to know his purpose. And Jerry was armed with Pilgrim’s exotic hardware, whatever that might prove to be worth. On the minus side… well, on the minus side was just about everything else.

First, there was his lack of knowledge. Not only about the timing of the attack, but about other aspects of the situation as well, such as the possible presence of Booth’s confederates in the theater or just outside.

And what about General Grant? The newspaper had said that Grant was going to be here too. That certainly ought to draw a crowd; no one in the city had seen that much of Grant, while the President was a semi-familiar face.

No one interfered with Jerry as he approached the theater. Baker’s people had missed the boat again, it would appear, and so had Colleen Monahan’s, if indeed she had any agents beside Mose still in the field. Quite likely, Jerry supposed, she was by now herself in a woman’s cell somewhere. Having to do that to her hurt him more than he thought it would, but there had been no help for it if he was to have any chance at all.

With a stream of other playgoers Jerry passed into the theater and through the busy lobby. The whole interior of the building was now well-lighted, a clean and well-decorated place.

As Jerry climbed the stairs to the dress circle, where his two seats were in row D, the farthest front. The seats throughout the auditorium were filling rapidly. Horns and fiddles were making the usual preliminary sounds; the theater lacked an orchestra pit, and musicians were occupying the space directly in front of the stage.

Jerry settled himself in one of his two seats. From here, now that the lights were on, he had an excellent view of the inconspicuous white door through which Booth intended to pass to reach the Presidential box. The only other way to get in would seem to be by the use of a ladder, climbing from the stage itself, and Jerry thought he could dismiss any such scheme as that.

There was no doubt as to where the Lincoln party would be. The arched openings of the double box seat at Jerry’s upper right had now been decorated with thickly draped red, white and blue bunting and a picture of George Washington. Jerry supposed that by this time the fancy chairs mentioned by Raybold had been moved into the box as well.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44

Categories: Saberhagen, Fred