After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

Booth, inevitably convinced that Jerry meant to stop him, turned on Jerry with the knife, now held in his right hand. Even as Jerry managed to grip the wrist of the hand that drove that weapon toward him, he knew his own damaged left wrist was not going to be able to take the strain.

In terror of his life now, all other purposes forgotten, Jerry screamed for help. Then he could no longer hold back the arm that held the knife. He saw and felt it come plunging into his chest, cold paralyzing steel that brought the certainty of death…

He fell. Through a thickening haze of red and gray, Jerry saw Booth re-open the door into the box. Through a cottony fog, Jerry heard the assassin’s pistol fire.

“Thus ever to tyrants!” Someone shouted in the distance. The words were followed by a sound as of cloth ripping, and then a crashing fall. Jerry realized that Booth, almost on schedule, had gone over the railing onto the stage.

“The President has been shot!” Someone was crying out the words.

Jerry could do nothing but sit slumped against the wall. People were trying to break in through the blocked door. There was an uproar of pounding and shouting all around him, but it seemed to have less and less to do with him, with each beat of his failing heart. He looked down at the watch he had been forced to drop. Still held to him by its chain, it lay on his bloodied waistcoat. He tried to reach for the stem of the device, but could not move his hands. He felt himself trying, failing, falling, dying—

—and then he was sitting alert and unbloodied in his wicker chair in the dress circle as Mrs. Mountchessington declaimed loudly to Asa Trenchard. Jerry’s breathing and pulse were normal. He was not even sweating, much less drenched in his own gore, but as he sat he could feel his pulse begin to race. The watch, ticking methodically, stem still unactivated, was resting in his left hand in his lap, and when he looked down at the familiar painted face of the timepiece he saw that the hands stood at ten minutes after ten.

…will you be able to do it three times? I don’t know. I expect you can do it once or twice, and that will be your limit.

He had failed, had wasted the one chance afforded him by Pilgrim; but his own special power of backing away from death had evidently given him another.

Ten minutes after ten, the watch said. Jerry raised his eyes sharply and turned his head.

John Wilkes Booth, plainly dressed in dark clothing, booted and spurred for riding, had just come into sight at the top of the little set of steps. The actor hesitated there for just a moment, as if he were surprised to find the Presidential box unguarded.

Automatically Jerry’s hands moved, opening the glass face of Pilgrim’s little device. Jerry’s right forefinger set—or re-set—the hands to twelve exactly. Next his forefinger and thumb pulled the stem out to the first position.

And as before, time changed for him, relative to time in the auditorium around him.

Once again the houselights appeared to dim around him, sounds deepened, and all movements but his own slowed down. But this time he got to his feet at once, not waiting for Booth to pass his chair. This time he got out into the aisle ahead of Booth. As before, no one in any of the surrounding seats seemed to be aware of Jerry’s passage.

Nor did Booth. The actor, approaching, paused for just an instant in the aisle, to stare at the chair Jerry had just vacated—as if a moment ago Booth had been aware of someone sitting there, and that now there was no one.

This time Jerry, unseen and unheard by his opponent, was waiting, flattened against the wall beside the white door when Booth reached for its knob and swung it open. And this time Jerry got in first.

Still undetected, he retreated speedily to the far end of the narrow vestibule. From there, only a few feet away, he watched while Booth, moving in slow motion, blockaded the white door with the wooden bar, and then put his hand on the knob of the door of Box 7. Jerry could hear the breathing of the assassin, who was unaware of anyone near him in the confined space.

As soon as Booth reached for the knob of the door in front of him, Jerry opened the other door to the box, the one farthest from the auditorium—Box 8.

The solid contact of his hand with the doorknob was not a collision. But the instant he moved the door, Jerry was jarred out of his accelerated state again, and back into the time-frame shared by everyone around him. Lights, sound, normal voices and motion, all flooded back.

Now he was standing in the Presidential box itself, and saw the four people there, seated more or less in a row with their backs to him—Major Rathbone’s dark wavy hair, on Jerry’s far right as he stood behind them; next young Clara Harris, daughter of a Senator; then Mrs. Lincoln, who had just let go of her husband’s hand; and finally Lincoln himself, sitting relaxed in a rocking chair, enjoying the play.

Lincoln’s head turned to the right, not with alarm, not yet, but curiosity. He had seen Jerry enter, though the President was not at first aware of the entry of Booth, who had come in a second or two after Jerry, to stand immediately behind the President.

But Mrs. Lincoln saw her husband’s head turn to the right. Turning her own head to see what Abraham was looking at, she did see Booth, and let out a loud scream at the sight of the weapon in his hand.

And on hearing this Lincoln took alarm and turned his whole body in his seat.

Rathbone had already risen. Moving faster than Jerry had expected, the major had thrown himself on Booth, so that the pistol discharging sent its ball harmlessly into the wall at the rear of the box.

But the dagger in Booth’s left hand sliced into the major’s chest and sent him sagging backward.

Jerry was fumbling with his watch, his fingers trying to hold the stem. It was all he could do to keep from dropping the device again as one of the combatants bumped into him.

The pounding on the outer door, the blocked door, begun only moments ago, had already grown to the proportions of a real assault.

Now Booth turned on the President and raised the knife again.

Abraham Lincoln had had time to turn fully around and gain his feet, kicking the encumbering rocking chair away. His huge left hand enfolded the wrist that held the knife. The other hand had seized Booth somewhere by his dark gray coat. The frontier wrestler’s body turned, the long arms of the railsplitter levered. The knife fell from Booth’s grip. The smaller body of the actor rose in an arc that would have graced a twentieth-century judo dojo, and went soaring over the railing, launched head first toward the stage twelve feet below.

Jerry never heard the ignominious crash of the landing. Far on the other side of the stage, deep in the shadows of the left-hand upper box, an orange flash appeared. He never heard the sound of the shot, but he felt the staggering, numbing impact of the bullet, somewhere around the inner end of his right collarbone—

—and he was sitting in the dress circle, uninjured, breathing calmly, his body still physiologically unaroused, listening to Mrs. Mountchessington declaim. One more try, at least, was to be granted him. One more, or an infinity of hopeless tries, perhaps.

—it is possible to get caught up in something like a closed programming loop—

Who had told him that?

And where was Booth?

—Booth had already passed Jerry’s seat in the dress circle, was going on into the white door—

Jerry loped after the actor, got through the door into the vestibule before it closed and locked. This time Jerry waited, invisible, until Booth had peered through the bored hole at his victim, then stood up and opened the door behind the seated President.

Then Jerry followed Booth through the same door into the Lincoln box.

This time by touching nothing but the floor, coming into hard contact with nothing movable in his environment, Jerry preserved his invisibility for a relatively long time. Holding his watch ready, fingers on the stem, Jerry saw—and felt that he had seen it a thousand times before—Booth’s derringer raised in the pale tattooed hand, the little hammer of the pistol drawn back. The hammer drawn back, and then falling, endlessly falling.

Jerry pulled the stem of the time-watch, activating the beacon.

And now, he watched the dull-bright curve of the leaden ball as it emerged from the truncated barrel of the little pistol. A fine spray of gas and unburnt powder, at first almost invisible, came escaping past the bullet, preceding it across the few inches between the muzzle and the target.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred