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Title: Time Bum

Date of first publication: 1953

Author: Cyril M. Kornbluth (1924-1958)

Date first posted: June 4, 2017

Date last updated: Feb. 2, 2021

Faded Page eBook #20170608

This eBook was produced by: Alex White & the online Distributed Proofreaders Canada team at http://www.pgdpcanada.net

Time Bum

Cyril M. Kornbluth

Illustrations by David Stone omitted,

not yet in the public domain.

First published Fantastic, Jan-Feb 1953.

Here is a story that would have delighted Damon Runyon. Even Harry the Horse, that Broadway immortal, would be forced to doff his hat to Harry Twenty-Third Street, the snappy dresser who came up with a completely new con game. For once this story gets around the local hangouts, the wise boys are going to drop their money machines and gold-mine stocks and start buying up lists of subscribers to science-fiction magazines. Yes sir, here’s one racket that is sure-fire—provided you’re willing to take the chance that the ending to Time Bum is pure fiction.

But God help you if you’re wrong!

Harry Twenty-Third Street suddenly burst into laughter. His friend and sometimes roper Farmer Brown looked inquisitive.

“I just thought of a new con,” Harry Twenty-Third Street said, still chuckling.

Farmer Brown shook his head positively. “There’s no such thing, my man,” he said. “There are only new switches on old cons. What have you got—a store con? Shall you be needing a roper?” He tried not to look eager as a matter of principle, but everybody knew the Farmer needed a connection badly. His girl had two-timed him on a badger game, running off with the chump and marrying him after an expensive, month-long buildup.

Harry said, “Sorry, old boy. No details. It’s too good to split up. I shall rip and tear the suckers with this con for many a year, I trust, before the details become available to the trade. Nobody, but nobody, is going to call copper after I take him. It’s beautiful and it’s mine. I will see you around, my friend.”

Harry got up from the booth and left, nodding cheerfully to a safeblower here, a fixer there, on his way to the locked door of the hangout. Naturally he didn’t nod to such small fry as pickpockets and dope peddlers. Harry had his pride.

The puzzled Farmer sipped his lemon squash and concluded that Harry had been kidding him. He noticed that Harry had left behind him in the booth a copy of a magazine with a space ship and a pretty girl in green bra and pants on the cover.

A furnished . . . bungalow?” the man said hesitantly, as though he knew what he wanted but wasn’t quite sure of the word.

“Certainly, Mr. Clurg,” Walter Lachlan said. “I’m sure we can suit you. Wife and family?”

“No,” said Clurg. “They are . . . far away.” He seemed to get some secret amusement from the thought. And then, to Walter’s horror, he sat down calmly in empty air beside the desk and, of course, crashed to the floor looking ludicrous and astonished.

Walter gaped and helped him up, sputtering apologies and wondering privately what was wrong with the man. There wasn’t a chair there. There was a chair on the other side of the desk and a chair against the wall. But there just wasn’t a chair where Clurg had sat down.

Clurg apparently was unhurt; he protested against Walter’s apologies, saying: “I should have known, Master Lachlan. It’s quite all right; it was all my fault. What about the bang—the bungalow?”

Business sense triumphed over Walter’s bewilderment. He pulled out his listings and they conferred on the merits of several furnished bungalows. When Walter mentioned that the Curran place was especially nice, in an especially nice neighborhood—he lived up the street himself—Clurg was impressed. “I’ll take that one,” he said. “What is the . . . feoff?”

Walter had learned a certain amount of law for his real-estate license examination; he recognized the word. “The rent is seventy-five dollars,” he said. “You speak English very well, Mr. Clurg.” He hadn’t been certain that the man was a foreigner until the dictionary word came out. “You have hardly any accent.”

“Thank you,” Clurg said, pleased. “I worked hard at it. Let me see—seventy-five is six twelves and three.” He opened one of his shiny-new leather suitcases and calmly laid six heavy little paper rolls on Walter’s desk. He broke open a seventh and laid down three mint-new silver dollars. “There I am,” he said. “I mean, there you are.”

Walter didn’t know what to say. It had never happened before. People paid by check or in bills. They just didn’t pay in silver dollars. But it was money—why shouldn’t Mr. Clurg pay in silver dollars if he wanted to? He shook himself, scooped the rolls into his top desk drawer and said: “I’ll drive you out there if you like. It’s nearly quitting-time anyway.”

Walter told his wife Betty over the dinner table: “We ought to have him in some evening. I can’t imagine where on Earth he comes from. I had to show him how to turn on the kitchen range. When it went on he said, ‘Oh, yes—electricity!’ and laughed his head off. And he kept ducking the question when I tried to ask him in a nice way. Maybe he’s some kind of a political refugee.”

“Maybe . . .” Betty began dreamily, and then shut her mouth. She didn’t want Walter laughing at her again. As it was, he made her buy her science-fiction magazines downtown instead of at neighborhood newsstands. He thought it wasn’t becoming for his wife to read them. He’s so eager for success, she thought sentimentally.

That night, while Walter watched a television variety show, she read a story in one of her magazines. (Its cover, depicting a space ship and a girl in green bra and shorts, had been prudently torn off and thrown away.) It was about a man from the future who had gone back in time, bringing with him all sorts of marvelous inventions. In the end the Time Police punished him for unauthorized time traveling. They had come back and got him, brought him back to his own time. She smiled. It would be nice if Mr. Clurg, instead of being a slightly eccentric foreigner, were a man from the future with all sorts of interesting stories to tell and a satchelful of gadgets that could be sold for millions and millions of dollars.

After a week they did have Clurg over for dinner. It started badly. Once more he managed to sit down in empty air and crash to the floor. While they were brushing him off he said fretfully: “I can’t get used to not—” and then said no more.

He was a picky eater. Betty had done one of her mother’s specialties, veal cutlet with tomato sauce, topped by a poached egg. He ate the egg and sauce, made a clumsy attempt to cut up the meat, and abandoned it. She served a plate of cheese, half a dozen kinds, for dessert, and Clurg tasted them uncertainly, breaking off a crumb from each, while Betty wondered where that constituted good manners. His face lit up when he tried a ripe cheddar. He popped the whole wedge into his mouth and said to Betty: “I will have that, please.”

“Seconds?” asked Walter. “Sure. Don’t bother, Betty. I’ll get it.” He brought back a quarter-pound wedge of the cheddar.

Walter and Betty watched silently as Clurg calmly ate every crumb of it. He sighed. “Very good. Quite like—” The word, Walter and Betty later agreed, was see-mon-joe. They were able to agree quite early in the evening, because Clurg got up after eating the cheese, said warmly, “Thank you so much!” and walked out of the house.

Betty said, “What—on—Earth!

Walter said uneasily, “I’m sorry, doll. I didn’t think he’d be quite that peculiar—”

“—But after all!”

“—Of course he’s a foreigner. What was that word?”

He jotted it down.

While they were doing the dishes Betty said, “I think he was drunk. Falling-down drunk.”

“No,” Walter said. “It’s exactly the same thing he did in my office. As though he expected a chair to come to him instead of him going to a chair.” He laughed and said uncertainly, “Or maybe he’s royalty. I read once about Queen Victoria never looking around before she sat down, she was so sure there’d be a chair there.”

“Well, there isn’t any more royalty, not to speak of,” she said angrily, hanging up the dish towel. “What’s on TV tonight?”

“Uncle Miltie. But . . . uh . . . I think I’ll read. Uh . . . where do you keep those magazines of yours, doll? Believe I’ll give them a try.”

She gave him a look that he wouldn’t meet, and she went to get him some of her magazines. She also got a slim green book which she hadn’t looked at for years. While Walter flipped uneasily through the magazines she studied the book.

After about ten minutes she said: “Walter. Seemonjoe. I think I know what language it is.”

He was instantly alert. “Yeah? What?”

“It should be spelled c-i-m-a-n-g-o, with little jiggers over the C and G. It means ‘universal food’ in Esperanto.”

“Where’s Esperanto?” he demanded.

“Esperanto isn’t anywhere. It’s an artificial language. I played around with it a little once. It was supposed to end war and all sorts of things. Some people called it ‘the language of the future’.” Her voice was tremulous.

Walter said, “I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”

He saw Clurg go into the neighborhood movie for the matinee. That gave him about three hours.

Walter hurried to the Curran bungalow, remembered to slow down and tried hard to look casual as he unlocked the door and went in. There wouldn’t be any trouble—he was a good citizen, known and respected—he could let himself into a tenant’s house and wait for him to talk about business if he wanted to.

He tried not to think of what people would think if he should be caught rifling Clurg’s luggage, as he intended to do. He had brought along an assortment of luggage keys. Surprised by his own ingenuity, he had got them at a locksmith’s by saying his own key was lost and he didn’t want to haul a heavy packed bag downtown.

But he didn’t need the keys. In the bedroom closet the two suitcases stood, unlocked.

There was nothing in the first except uniformly new clothes, bought locally at good shops. The second was full of the same. Going through a rather extreme sports jacket, Walter found a wad of paper in the breast pocket. It was a newspaper page. A number had been penciled on a margin; apparently the sheet had been torn out and stuck into the pocket and forgotten. The dateline on the paper was July 18th, 2403.

Walter had some trouble reading the stories at first, but found it was easy enough if he read them aloud and listened to his voice. One said:



Patrolm’n Oskr Garth ’v thi Taim Polis w’z arest’d toodei at hiz hom, 4365 9863th Strit, and bookd at 9768th Prisint on tchardg’z ’v Polis-Ekspozh’r. Thi aledjd Ekspozh’r okur’d hwaile Garth w’z on dooti in thi Twenti-Furst Sentch’ri. It konsist’d ’v hiz admish’n too a sit’zen ’v thi Twenti-Furst Sentch’ri that thi Taim Polis ekzisted and woz op’rated fr’m thi Twenti-Fifth Sentch’ri. The Proskyoot’rz Ofis sed thi deth pen’lti wil be askt in vyoo ’v thi heinus neitch’r ’v thi ofens, hwitch thret’nz thi hwol fabrik ’v Twenti-Fifth-Sentchri eksiztens.

There was an advertisement on the other side:




Underneath it another ad asked:


No uth’r tcheir haz thi immidjit respons ’v a Rolfast. Sit enihweir—eor Rolfast iz their!

Eur Rolfast met’l partz ar solid gold too avoid tairsum polishing. Eur Rolfast beirings are thi fain’st six-intch dupliks di’mondz for long wair.

Walter’s heart pounded. Gold—to avoid tiresome polishing! Six-inch diamonds—for long wear!

And Clurg must be a time policeman. “Only in the time police can you see the pageant of the ages!” What did a time policeman do? He wasn’t quite clear about that. But what they didn’t do was let anybody else—anybody earlier—know that the Time Police existed. He, Walter Lachlan of the Twentieth Century, held in the palm of his hand Time Policeman Clurg of the Twenty-Fifth Century—the Twenty-Fifth Century where gold and diamonds were common as steel and glass in this!

He was there when Clurg came back from the matinee.

Mutely, Walter extended the page of newsprint. Clurg snatched it incredulously, stared at it and crumpled it in his fist. He collapsed on the floor with a groan. “I’m done for!” Walter heard him say.

“Listen, Clurg,” Walter said. “Nobody ever needs to know about this—nobody.”

Clurg looked up with sudden hope in his eyes. “You will keep silent?” he asked wildly. “It is my life!”

“What’s it worth to you?” Walter demanded with brutal directness. “I can use some of those diamonds and some of that gold. Can you get it into this century?”

“It would be missed. It would be over my mass-balance,” Clurg said. “But I have a Duplix. I can copy diamonds and gold for you; that was how I made my feoff money.”

He snatched an instrument from his pocket—a fountain pen, Walter thought. “It is low in charge. It would Duplix about five kilograms in one operation—”

“You mean,” Walter demanded, “that if I brought you five kilograms of diamonds and gold you could duplicate it? And the originals wouldn’t be harmed? Let me see that thing. Can I work it?”

Clurg passed over the “fountain pen”. Walter saw that within the case was a tangle of wires, tiny tubes, lenses—he passed it back hastily. Clurg said, “That is correct. You could buy or borrow jewelry and I could duplix it. Then you could return the originals and retain the copies. You swear by your contemporary God that you would say nothing?”

Walter was thinking. He could scrape together a good 30,000 dollars by pledging the house, the business, his own real estate, the bank account, the life insurance, the securities. Put it all into diamonds, of course, and then—doubled! Overnight!

“I’ll say nothing,” he told Clurg. “If you come through.” He took the sheet from the 25th-century newspaper from Clurg’s hands and put it securely in his own pocket. “When I get those diamonds duplicated,” he said, “I’ll burn this and forget the rest. Until then, I want you to stay close to home. I’ll come around in a day or so with the stuff for you to duplicate.”

Clurg nervously promised.

The secrecy, of course, didn’t include Betty. He told her when he got home and she let out a yell of delight. She demanded the newspaper, read it avidly, and then demanded to see Clurg.

“I don’t think he’ll talk,” Walter said doubtfully. “But if you really want to . . .”

She did, and they walked to the Curran bungalow. Clurg was gone, lock, stock and barrel, leaving not a trace behind. They waited for hours, nervously.

At last Betty said, “He’s gone back.”

Walter nodded. “He wouldn’t keep his bargain, but by God I’m going to keep mine. Come along. We’re going to the Enterprise.”

“Walter,” she said. “You wouldn’t—would you?”

He went alone, after a bitter quarrel.

At the Enterprise office he was wearily listened to by a reporter, who wearily looked over the 25th-century newspaper. “I don’t know what you’re peddling, Mr. Lachlan,” he said, “but we like people to buy their ads in the Enterprise. This is a pretty bare-faced publicity grab.”

“But—” Walter sputtered.

“Sam, would you please ask Mr. Morris to come up here if he can?” the reporter was saying into the phone. To Walter he explained, “Mr. Morris is our press-room foreman.”

The foreman was a huge, white-haired old fellow, partly deaf. The reporter showed him the newspaper from the twenty-fifth century and said, “How about this?”

Mr. Morris looked at it and smelled it and said, showing no interest in the reading matter: “American Type Foundry Futura number nine, discontinued about ten years ago. It’s been hand-set. The ink—hard to say. Expensive stuff, not a news ink. A book ink, a job-printing ink. The paper, now, I know. A nice linen rag that Benziger jobs in Philadelphia.”

“You see, Mr. Lachlan? It’s a fake.” The reporter shrugged.

Walter walked slowly from the city room. The press-room foreman knew. It was a fake. And Clurg was a faker. Suddenly Walter’s heels touched the ground after twenty-four hours and stayed there. Good God, the diamonds! Clurg was a conman! He would have worked a package switch! He would have had thirty thousand dollars’ worth of diamonds for less than a month’s work!

He told Betty about it when he got home and she laughed unmercifully. “Time Policeman” was to become a family joke between the Lachlans.

Harry Twenty-Third Street stood, blinking, in a very peculiar place. Peculiarly, his feet were firmly encased, up to the ankles, in a block of clear plastic.

There were odd-looking people and a big voice was saying: “May it please the court. The People of the Twenty-Fifth Century versus Harold Parish, alias Harry Twenty-Third Street, alias Clurg, of the Twentieth Century. The charge is impersonating an officer of the Time Police. The Prosecutor’s Office will ask the death penalty in view of the heinous nature of the offense, which threatens the whole fabric—”


Mis-spelled words and printer errors have been fixed.

[The end of Time Bum by Cyril M. Kornbluth]