After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

Now it was nine-ten by Pilgrim’s faithful watch, and Booth had not yet appeared. That would seem to argue against collusion by the guard. Maybe the guard had only gone out for a smoke, or a quick drink in the saloon next door. Maybe he would soon be back, to complicate Jerry’s situation further.

But the shabbily dressed man who had been posted to sit by the white door did not come back. Jerry waited, staring past Colleen at the empty chair.

There was applause around them. With a start he looked back toward the stage and realized that the curtain was going down and the houselights were brightening. Was the play over? Had Lincoln been saved only because Jerry had introduced some distraction that kept Booth from ever coming to the theater? Might such a result possibly be good enough for Pilgrim, or did it mean that history had been mangled, and the helpless time-traveler trapped after all?

Then belatedly Jerry realized that this could be, must be, only a between-acts intermission. Colleen was looking at him. The tiny triumphant smile she had worn on her arrival had faded, had to be replaced by a look of wary concern.

Around them people were standing up and stretching, chatting about the play. They moved in the aisles, but not with the purposeful attitude of a crowd starting out for home. Many of the audience were looking toward the Presidential box, though with the draperies in place it was impossible for anyone elsewhere in the theater to get more than the tiniest glimpse of its august occupant.

Jerry stood on tired, quivering legs, and Colleen got up to stand beside him. “Well, Mr. Lockwood. Will you escort me to the lobby? I believe there might be some refreshment available there.” When he hesitated, she added in the same voice: “Or would you prefer to end this now?”

He didn’t know exactly what she meant, but he was afraid she would blow a whistle and bring plainclothesmen swarming from God knew where. Anyway, Lincoln wasn’t shot during intermission; Jan Chen, Pilgrim, or someone had told Jerry that the play was in process when the crime occurred.

He nodded and offered her his arm. Numbly he descended to the lobby, Colleen beside him on the stair holding his arm lightly, as a hundred other ladies in sight were walking with their men. The hum of voices was genteel; in the lobby itself were mostly ladies, while the gentlemen appeared to have moved outside en masse. Wisps of blue cigar and pipe smoke wafted in through the open doors leading to the street. It had been a long time since Jerry had seen an expanse of carpeted floor the size of the lobby without spittoons.

“Would it be too much trouble, Mr. Lockwood, to get me a lemonade?”

“Not at all.”

He visited the genteel bar on one side of the lobby, and was back with her drink a moment later.

“And for yourself? Nothing to drink? I won’t be offended if you choose something stronger. For that you’ll have to go to the tavern next door.” Colleen’s voice was brittle and strained; the more she spoke, the more unnatural she sounded.

Jerry started to reply, then simply nodded. Now was not the time for him to take a drink; but he could certainly use a moment to himself, away from Colleen at least, to try to regroup.

The intermission was evidently going to be a long one, for the men outside in front of the theater, and in Taltavul’s next door, gave no sign of drifting back to the theater.

On entering the bar, Jerry recognized among the crowd the guard who had been sitting outside of Lincoln’s box. Was the man really in on the conspiracy, then?

While Jerry was wondering if he should take a short beer after all, a couple of gulps just to heal the dryness in his throat, a name was called nearby in a familiar voice. Turning, responding more to the voice than to the name—which had been Smith—Jerry with relief saw John Wilkes Booth, dressed in dark gray, standing at the bar with a bottle of whiskey and a glass in front of him.

Booths dark eyes were almost twinkling, as if with a great secret. “Mr. Smith—will you have a drink with me?”

Jerry, filled with a vast relief, accepted. “Gladly, Mr. Booth, gladly.”

Relief was short lived. Jerry wondered if Booth might now have given up his murderous plan, and decided to spend the evening getting sloshed instead.

Would that, could that, possibly satisfy Pilgrim? Jerry didn’t know, but he felt grave doubts. Pilgrim had, after all, specifically enjoined him against merely warning Lincoln.

“Are you enjoying the show?” Booth asked. Having obtained a glass for Jerry by gestures, he was pouring delicately to fill it.

“Oh yes.” Jerry couldn’t think of anything better to say. He lifted his glass and sipped at it as delicately as it had been poured.

“Be sure to see the rest,” Booth was gazing now into the mirror behind the bar. “There is going to be some rare fine acting.”

Someone down the bar, six or eight customers distant, was calling the actor’s name, trying to get his attention. Booth and Jerry looked, to see a man evidently trying to drink a toast.

“—to the late Junius Booth. Wilkes, you are a good actor, yes. But you’ll never be the man your father was.”

Booth drank to his father without hesitation. But for a moment a small smile seemed to play under his mustache. He shook his head in disagreement: “When I leave the stage, I will be the most famous man in America.”

A few moments later, Jerry took his leave of the people in the bar. Colleen appeared actually surprised when he came back into the lobby. She said: “This one time I expected you to disappear—and you did not.”

“No, I did not. Shall we go back to our seats? The play will be starting soon.”

Silently she took his arm. Her face was turned toward him, her eyes studying his face, as they climbed the stairs from the lobby.

Soon they were back in the dress circle. She was not smiling now, nor pretending. When she spoke her voice was still so low that the people around them would have trouble hearing it; but it was no longer the voice of a lady who had come to watch a play.

“Damn you. Damn you, man. Do you still think you can brazen this out, whatever it is? Do you know how far I’ve stuck out my neck for you already? I had convinced myself that—what happened between us on the train was… is it that you’re ready to die to be rid of me, or what?”

“Colleen.” He could feel and hear the sheer hopelessness in his own voice. “It meant something to me, what happened between us. But I can’t argue about it… not now. How did you know that I was here?”

Her voice sank further. “One of the girls in the brothel reports to me too. She went through your pockets while you were there.” She stared at him in anger a moment longer; then she walked briskly away, not looking back.

The gaslights had brightened again when the intermission began. When Colleen left Jerry got out of his seat again to pace back and forth in the aisle, stretching and soothing muscles that cried for either rest or action. He kept watching the white door. Would the President feel the urge to stretch his long legs too, and emerge from seclusion?

Almost ten o’clock, and the play had not yet resumed. And now a man, a middle-aged well-dressed civilian Jerry had never seen before, was coming along the aisle in front of Jerry, approaching the white door with a piece of paper folded in his hand.

This visitor certainly was not Booth. Who was he, then? A possible confederate? Certainly not one of the group from Surrat’s boarding house. Jerry stared, holding his breath, on the verge of pulling the trigger of his watch and charging forward, yet knowing that he must not, until he knew that Booth himself had begun to make his move.

The man with the paper in his hand conferred briefly with two military officers in uniform who happened to be the members of the audience who nearest to the post abandoned by the guard. Then with a nod he opened the door and walked in calmly.

Within a minute the messenger, for such he seemed to be, had emerged again, without his paper. Looking rather well satisfied with himself and his importance, the man retreated in the direction of the stairs.

Almost as soon as he had disappeared, the house-lights dimmed again, warning patrons to return to their seats. Jerry crouched in his chair again. Shortly the play resumed.

Jerry had just looked at his watch for the hundredth time, and had somehow managed to retain the information it provided, and so he knew that it was ten minutes after ten when Booth at last appeared in the auditorium. When Jerry saw him first the actor, well dressed in dark, inconspicuous clothing, was standing at the top of the short series of steps leading down from the main exit to the aisle that ran across the front of the dress circle. Jerry could see Booth hesitate there for a moment, looking in the direction of the Presidential box, as if he were surprised to discover that his victim was essentially unguarded.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred