It would be foolish to do a thing
a hard way, when there is such
an easy way. In a technically
dependent culture, people become
quite helpless, really....
BY IRWIN LEWIS
ILLUSTRATED BY LEO SUMMERS
He was a tall, learned-looking man, about fifty, slightly
stooped, with a bulging midriff, tortoise-shell glasses,
graying hair, and a strange look in his eyes. I'd noticed
him standing outside Shannon's Bar for about ten minutes,
pacing back and forth. Then he came in and sat
down next to me. It was late afternoon, before the rush
hour, and we were the only customers in the place.
Jimmy, the bartender, put down the towel with which
he'd been idly wiping glasses, and came over. "What'll
The stranger jumped nervously and looked blank for
a moment. "Uh ... er ... a glass of beer, please. Root
Jimmy snorted. "Try the candy store down the block."
"Oh," said the stranger, obviously upset. "Then let me
have a glass of regular beer—mild, please."
I smiled at Jimmy as he filled a glass. All sorts came
into Shannon's. Outside, the traffic on Third Avenue was
only a faint hum.
The stranger licked the foam tentatively and wrinkled
his nose in distaste. He put the glass back on the bar and
shook his head.
"Pro superi! quantum mortalia pectora caecae, Noctis
"Huh?" said Jimmy.
The stranger smiled briefly. "That is Latin. It means,
Oh, ye gods, what darkness of night there is in mortal
Jimmy shrugged and went back to wiping glasses. The
stranger nodded to me. "Ovid said that. He was a wise
"Friend of yours?" I asked, just to be polite.
"He died nearly two thousand years ago." He tasted
the beer again and pushed it away. "Permit me to introduce
myself. I am Horace Howard Clarke, associate professor
of Roman History at one of the universities in
I introduced myself and we shook hands. "Tell me,"
he said, "do you believe New York can be conquered?"
One of those kind, I thought. And here I was with an
hour to kill before meeting my date. "Lots of people have
taken it in," I started.
"I don't mean that kind. I mean physically invaded."
"Pretty big job, I'd think."
"Very simple." He dropped a small metal disk on the
bar. "This could do it—or at least help."
I picked up the metal disk. "Why, it's a subway token."
"Almost a subway token," he said. "And therein lies
the key to conquest. That—and the green lights." I edged
away from him. This I didn't need! He leaned towards
me. "If only I could convince someone," he said, his lips
tight. "Perhaps you will believe me."
I got to my feet. "Sorry. But I've got a date."
"Please!" The voice was firm, all of a sudden. "It is
vital!" I hesitated and Jimmy came over, in case there
"Well," I said, deciding to humor him, "if it won't
"Brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio."
"If I labor to be brief, I become obscure."
I sighed. A long-winded one. And in Latin, yet!
He motioned to Jimmy. "Let this gentleman have another
drink, bartender." He moved closer to me. "I will
tell you what I know," he said. "If you believe, perhaps
you will be able to do something about it. This much is
certain. Very little time remains before disaster strikes!"
It all began (he said) prosaically enough on the Tuesday
of last week, on the third floor of the Public Library
at 42nd Street, in Room 315. There, as you probably
know, one may obtain books on most subjects by filling
out a slip, receiving an odd or even number, and retiring
to either the odd or even Reading Room, where your
number will eventually flash on a lighted board. At the
time I was engrossed in a study of the early life of Publilius
Syrus and, I must admit, glanced only casually at
the card given me by the young man at the desk. I saw
that it was 18 and proceeded into the Even room on the
right for what I knew from past experience would be a
Ah! Had I but paid more attention to the card handed
me! But "Ad poenitendum properat, cito qui judicat."
"He makes speed to repentance who judges hastily." The
card which I thought was numbered 18, was actually 81.
I had inadvertently glanced at it upside down. Had the
Roman numeral system been used, as I have long advocated,
this unfortunate accident could not have occurred:
a XVIII cannot be mistaken for LXXXI no matter which
way it is turned!
Be that as it may, number 18 flashed on the board in
a surprisingly short time and I hastened to obtain the
book from the extremely harried young lady behind the
counter. I returned to my chair at one of the long reading
tables. When I opened the book, which was of a disturbing
blue color, I was highly irritated to learn that this
was not a biography of Publilius Syrus; furthermore it
was not even in Latin. I removed my glasses to make
certain (someday I shall simply have to get bifocals)
and saw that it was a foreign cookbook.
Annoyed, I snatched the book from the table and
started to return to the counter. As I did so, a green slip
of paper fluttered from between the pages. I glanced at it
idly. There was an address on it, scrawled in almost
illegible block letters. "432 West 28th Street." Being of
a tidy nature, I slipped the bit of paper into my pocket
and turned, only to find my way blocked by a rather
large man wearing a trench coat with upturned collar.
He tapped the book significantly and whispered, "Eight-thirty
tonight. You know the place."
With that he strode rapidly from the room, giving me
no chance to ask him what he was talking about. Irritated,
I returned to the counter where a smallish man, wearing
a loud-checked suit was arguing with the young lady. He
was holding a number card.
"But I tell you," said the harassed young lady, "number
18 was flashed on the board and the book was picked
The little man clucked impatiently and waved the card.
"But I have number 18," he said shrilly, "and I must have
Normally I am not a fast thinker. Years of teaching
Roman history to classes of dozing students, interested
only in easy credits, are not reckoned to sharpen one's
wits. However, I instantly realized what must have happened.
I tapped the little man on the shoulder.
"Pardon me, sir," I whispered, "is this your book?"
He whirled around violently. He had a thin, sharp-pointed
face with deep-set eyes, heavy brow and a receding chin
that terminated in a little scrub of a beard. Rudely he
snatched the book from my hand and began leafing
through it with shaking fingers.
I started to say, "If Roman numerals had been used
instead of—" but saw he was paying no attention to me,
so I headed for the Main Room to get another card. I
had no sooner reached the entrance when I was confronted
by the little bearded man again. His mouth was
agape with distress, his loud-checked bowtie askew. He
waved the book in my face. "Didn't you find anything in
here?" he demanded.
"Not really," I said. "I have no interest in French
He shook his head vigorously. "I mean inside the
"Quiet, please," said the guard at the entrance, holding
his finger to his lips disapprovingly. I continued into
the Main Room, the little man scurrying alongside me.
"Please," he pleaded, "think. Wasn't there something
in the book?"
Irked at his persistence, I was about to move on, when
I remembered. "Why, yes," I said, slowly. "There was
something. This." I fished the bit of green paper from
my pocket. He snatched it from me, uttered a squeak of
delight, and hurried away.
Relieved that this untidy business was finally done
with, I decided to forego Publilius Syrus for the day, since
I was no longer in the mood and I had some important
papers to edit. So I returned to my home, a rather large
and comfortable room on the first floor of a converted
brownstone in lower Manhattan. I had no sooner settled
down at my desk when there came an urgent knock on my
door. I slipped on my glasses and opened the door.
Imagine my amazement and irritation when the little
man from the library scuttled into the room. He hurried
to the window and pulled down the blind. Then he firmly
removed my hand from the doorknob, closed the door
and locked it. He leaned against the door, facing me.
"There is no 432 West 28th Street," he announced,
"The information does not impress me," I said. "How
did you find out where I live? And why?"
"I asked several of the librarians if they knew you. It
seems they did. And since you are listed in the telephone
book, the rest was simple." He held up the green slip of
paper. "Was this ALL you found?"
Well, I thought, childishly pleased, at least I am not
one of the innumerable nameless faces that pour in and
out of the library daily. "What else was there supposed
to be?" I asked pleasantly.
The little man sank into my favorite leather chair, almost
disappearing from view. He waved the slip of paper
aimlessly. "There must be more to it than this."
Despite his rudeness I found myself taking a liking to
him. He was so intense and so—frightened. "There was
a man," I said.
He leaped to his feet and clutched my coat. I believe
he would have tried to shake me had I not been a foot
taller and fully fifty pounds heavier than he. "What
"In the library. He indicated that book and said something
He leaped onto the chair in his excitement and grasped
my shoulders with his hands. We stood thus eye to eye.
"Please!" he begged. "Try to remember! What did he
"Perhaps you had better tell me what this is all about,
"Rumplestein. However, believe me, Professor Clarke,
it is much better if you do not know."
I shook my head, displaying what my colleagues occasionally
call a streak of stubbornness. "You have upset
me considerably. I feel I am due some explanation."
"No! No! No!" He shook his little head vigorously
"Then I cannot recollect what this man said to me."
He groaned in dismay and stepped off the chair to the
floor. "Very well," he said, finally. "You force me to reveal
this." I waited patiently. His head snapped erect.
His body stiffened. "I am engaged in a highly secret mission,
the purpose of which is to prevent the collapse of
I frowned. "You're not serious, of course."
"I have never been more serious in my life!"
"Quem Jupiter vult perdere, dementat prius."
"Whom Jupiter wishes to ruin, he first drives mad," I
"You think I'm crazy?"
I didn't like the gleam in his eye and the tightly pressed
lips. I hastily decided I was better off with him
gone. These little people, I am told, can sometimes get
"I most certainly do," I said, "but that is none of my
affair. I will tell you what that man said and then I would
appreciate your popping out of my life as you so unceremoniously
popped into it."
"What did he say?" He leaned forward waiting, it
would seem, as if the fate of the world hung in the
"Eight-thirty tonight. You know the place."
The little man studied the paper, repeating the words.
Then he emitted a shriek of ecstasy. "That's it! Now the
message is clear! Thank you, Professor Clarke. You have
performed a duty towards society and your city." He
fled down the hall. I heard the front door slam and returned
to my work with a sigh of relief.
About eleven o'clock the same evening, weary in body
and mind, I was preparing for bed when there came what
I can only describe as a feeble but urgent rapping on my
door. The strange events of the afternoon completely forgotten,
I opened the door. There, in the dim light of the
hall, considerably the worse for wear, stood my little visitor
of the afternoon. He was bare-headed, his dark curly
locks plastered to his forehead with perspiration. His
bowtie was missing and his checkered suit was covered
with splotches of mud and some darker substance, especially
around the left arm which he gingerly supported
with his right hand.
He shook his head weakly and staggered into the room.
"Not Rumplestein," he said, so low I could hardly hear
him. "Tonight it's O'Grady." He collapsed on my leather
chair, mumbling, "The door."
I bolted the door and hurried over to him. "What happened
to your arm?"
"Never mind that now," he said stoically.
Despite his protests I carefully removed his jacket and
cut away the sleeve of his shirt. There was an ugly wound
on his arm. "How did this happen?" I asked, horrified.
"It's nothing," he said. Then he grinned momentarily.
"The chap who caused it is feeling no pain at all!" He
closed his eyes and his head began to sway. "If you have
any liquor," he mumbled, "I feel faint, suddenly—"
I rummaged through my desk and found a tiny bottle
of some cordial a colleague had once brought me as a jest,
knowing I do not drink. While Mr. Rumplestein, or
O'Grady, gulped down the liquid I inspected the wound.
"A doctor should look at that," I said.
He shook his head and leaned back in the chair, the
top of his head a good twelve inches below the top of the
"I feel better now," he sighed.
"Then perhaps you will be good enough to tell me
what this is all about." As I spoke I washed and dressed
his wound as best I could. "You realize, my good fellow,
for all I know you may be wanted by the police, in which
case I could be arrested for harboring a criminal."
"I assure you, Professor Clarke, I am no criminal."
He plucked a bit of mud from his beard and carefully
deposited it on the table.
"But you've been wounded! And you infer you did
some bodily harm to someone else."
He chuckled softly. "Bodily harm? I killed him!"
I recoiled in fright. "I must notify the police!"
"No! That would ruin everything! New York would
I clucked impatiently. "Please, Mr. Rumplestein, or
O'Grady, or whatever your name is. If you cannot give
me an honest answer, I shall be forced to call the authorities.
This nonsense about—"
He held up his hand and emitted a huge sigh. "Very
well," he said, "I will tell you what this is all about because
my usefulness may come to an end abruptly and
you may have to carry on. Listen carefully." I waited
with mounting impatience.
"New York," he said after a brief pause, "is a huge,
sprawling metropolis that breeds within itself the seeds
of its own destruction. Transportation." I raised an eyebrow.
"At best," he went on, "the traffic in Manhattan
does not flow—it limps. Let one traffic light fail and
vehicles are backed up for several blocks. True?"
I nodded. "Yes."
"Very well. Imagine, then, a situation where, at one
given instant every single traffic light on this congested
island turns green and STAYS green." I shuddered at
the thought. "Picture the beauty of it," he said. "Not
red, which would cause all automobiles to stop, but green,
the signal to go! Imagine their mad desire to rush forward
in righteous obedience to the law, and their awful
frustration to find every other automobile and truck
obeying the same law, regardless of the direction from
which it is coming. It has been estimated by noted mathematicians
who are involved in this plan, that within forty-five
seconds all traffic in Manhattan would come to a
standstill, it becoming impossible for a car to move forward
or backward. Oh, what utter chaos!"
"Ab homine homini periculum quotidianum," I said.
"Man is daily in danger from man. An ancient Roman
"He knew what he was talking about. But this is only
Phase One of the plan. A corollary is based upon the
axiom that one disabled automobile is equal to ten thousand
"I don't follow."
"The highways leading into and out of this island. Regardless
of the number of lanes, if one automobile breaks
down, traffic is immobilized for miles. Multiply that by
several dozen, all at the same time, on all the entrances
and exits to the island, and no earthly power could untangle
that situation in less than a week, if then!"
His words evoked an image of metal monsters, stretched
as far as the eye could see, steam pouring from their
overheated radiators as they raucously bleated for help.
"All this can be accomplished quite simply and inexpensively,"
continued my bearded little man. "However,
what of subsurface transportation?"
"You mean the subway system?"
"Exactly. Once again, simplicity is the key. What do
subway riders use to gain entrance through the turnstiles?
Tokens. Let us suppose that on this same given day the
majority of tokens distributed are all fractionally larger
than normal. Not enough to be noticed, mind you, but
just enough so they cannot pass through the slots and
activate the mechanism."
"Do you realize the absolute ingenuity of this plan?
Subway riders by the thousands will be trying to put
tokens that they paid for into slots that will not receive
them! The tremendous howl of anguish that will arise!
The roar of frustration and then anger as the thousands
pile upon the thousands at rush hour! The screaming and
pushing as multitudes press forward at each subway station,
demanding their rights of ingress as good citizens,
while more multitudes press from the incoming trains demanding
their rights of egress! Unquestionably the entire
subway system will collapse in a matter of minutes!
What was it you said before?"
"Ab homine homini periculum quotidianum?"
"And how!" He lit a cigar and puffed away for a few
moments, filling my room with its foul odor. "Ingenious,
eh?" he said finally.
"But to what end?" I asked. "If anarchy rules the city,
how could whoever is behind this plan assume control?"
He leaned back in the chair, disappearing from view.
"That is not part of the scheme. The purpose is to arouse
the rest of the country to what has happened to its greatest
metropolis. Every eye, ear, radio and television station
will be turned towards Manhattan. The armed forces,
all the resources of the government will, within hours,
pour into the city, or try to. And at precisely that moment
the rest of the country will be childishly open to invasion!
If this plan succeeds, professor, the United States will be
conquered within a matter of days, with remarkably little
destruction or loss of life."
I stared at the little figure in the chair. Was he serious?
More important—was he sane? "Who is planning this
"Why tell me this story? Why not go to the authorities?"
"I need sufficient proof, first. Unfortunately, matters
are coming to a head far sooner than I expected. In addition,
my disposing of one of their men earlier," he tapped
his left arm significantly, "has left me in a vulnerable
position. I dare not go to the authorities myself, for fear
of exposing myself. And believe me"—he snapped his
fingers—"I would not get as far as the nearest policeman.
However, professor, you are unsuspected. You could
report this plan with no danger to yourself."
"Enough! My dear Mr. Rumplestein-O'Grady, do you
expect me to charge into a police station and blurt out
this ridiculous story?"
"I don't expect you to charge anywhere, professor.
Not without proof. I will get the proof for you, by tomorrow.
Then—as I suspect—if I am unable to warn the
authorities, I will expect you to do so. In the meantime,
make use of these when you go to the university, tomorrow.
I found them on the body of the man I disposed of."
He dropped several tinkly objects on my desk, rose,
and, without another word, was gone. I picked up the
items. They were subway tokens. I hurried to the window
and glanced out. I could see the little man hurrying down
the street, his head bobbing up and down like a swimmer
in the ocean. Then, my mind in a turmoil, I turned out
the light and went to bed. Fortunately, regardless of the
press of circumstances, I have never had difficulty in falling
asleep and tonight was no exception.
At seven-thirty the next morning I arose, dressed, and
prepared my breakfast. I thought of the events of the
preceding evening. Had it not been for the bloodied towel
with which I had washed the little man's wounds, I might
have dismissed the entire incident as a dream. I continued
to think about it while walking to the subway. I
berated myself for taking the story seriously even for a
moment, as I dropped a token into the turnstile and
pressed forward. I gasped in sudden pain as the turnstile,
still locked, pushed into my midriff. I glanced at the token
in the slot. It had not dropped. I pressed it down. It refused
to budge. I tried several other tokens, all with the
same result. By this time half a dozen people had gathered
behind me, making angry remarks. Flustered, I backed
away, bought a token from the cashier, and rode to the
University. Then it was I recalled that I had tried to use
the tokens my strange visitor had placed on my desk
before parting from me, and which I had, without thinking,
picked up in the morning.
All that day I pondered over the tokens and the odd
tale of Mr. Rumplestein-O'Grady. I could still give it no
credence, but I was disturbed. On my way home, that
evening, as is my wont, I bought a newspaper and began
reading it casually. Just before reaching my station, I
came across a small item on one of the inside pages. It
stated that a small, bearded man, wearing a checkered
suit, had been found in the river that morning, stabbed.
There were no identification papers on him, only a
pocket full of subway tokens which, police believed, had
been used to weight down the body.
"Good heavens!" I said aloud. Several passengers
raised their eyebrows. I flushed, hurried out of the train
and to my apartment where I fell into my chair, shocked
and shaking. No doubt the body was that of Rumplestein.
The poor little man! What did this mean? Could his story
conceivably have been true?
The knock on my door startled me. "Professor, are you
home?" It was my landlady. When I opened the door
she handed me an envelope with my name written on it
in small, neat letters. "A little fellow with a beard gave it
to me early this morning, after you'd gone. He said to be
sure you got it. Then he ran away." She shook her head
in obvious disapproval of such actions.
After she left I tore open the envelope and read the
"By the time you see this chances are excellent that I
shall be dead. However, that is of little importance. I have
found the proof we need—their distribution plant. It's
an old warehouse. I am going there to see if I cannot obtain
concrete proof—perhaps a pocketful of tokens. If I
fail, you must carry on. Farewell, professor. It was a
privilege knowing you."
Beneath the message was an address which I recognized
as being in one of the less reputable sections of the city.
There was no signature.
What to do! What to do! I no longer doubted the
truth of little Mr. Rumplestein-O'Grady's story. But what
to do about it? I considered going to the warehouse, but
the thought of high adventure sends nothing but ennui
coursing through my veins. Besides, there was undoubtedly
some element of danger in that course. The police!
Naturally! They would know how to deal with this situation
and perhaps even avenge poor Mr. Rumplestein's
death. Filled with righteous anger and indignation I
hurried out and went to the nearest police station.
In retrospect I can understand the reaction of the desk
sergeant to my wild-eyed claim that the city was in imminent
danger of invasion and he must do something
about it at once!
"How much, now, have ye had to drink?" he asked
When I swore that I was as sober as he, he grew purple
with rage and threatened to have me thrown into jail
for insulting a police officer unless I disappeared immediately.
All that night and the next day I tried to reach someone
in authority with my information. The New York City
police were admirably calm about my information. My
actions and voice, however, seemed to disturb them
greatly. When I insisted they investigate the warehouse,
they told me the officer on the beat would do so in good
time. When I suggested they examine the tokens found
on the body they informed me that these had been turned
over to the Property Clerk and if not claimed within
ninety days would be given to the PAL.
As a last desperate measure I went to the New York
office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and presented
myself to one of the Federal men. I told him my
story. He looked at me calmly, then pored through a thick
book on his desk. He closed one eye thoughtfully and
peered at me through the other.
"There's really nothing," he said, "that we can do
"Don't you believe me?"
"That has nothing to do with it. According to regulations
this is strictly a municipal affair. It doesn't come
within the jurisdiction of the FBI. And we wouldn't want
to step on municipal toes." He closed the book smartly.
I was crushed. I couldn't believe it. Finally I said,
"Serum est cavendi tempus in mediis malis!"
"'It is too late to be cautious when in the very midst
of dangers.' Seneca said that two thousand years ago."
The young man rose and nodded towards the door.
"Good day, professor. And an E pluribus unum to you!"
That was an hour ago.
Professor Clarke stopped talking. Jimmy and I said
nothing. The only sound was the hum of traffic outside.
"And that is the way it is, gentlemen," said Professor
Clarke, finally. "Quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus.
When Rome falls—the world!" He sipped the beer which
by now had gone flat. "Do you believe me?"
Jimmy and I exchanged glances. "Have another beer,"
said Jimmy. "On the house."
"I see." Professor Clarke sighed. "Well, I cannot really
blame you, gentlemen. I only hope you do not live to
regret it." He got up and put a coin on the bar. Jimmy
went to make change.
Then we became aware of automobile horns blasting
steadily on a rising note of urgency. Jimmy and I ran
outside. Traffic was piling up rapidly in the street. And as
far as we could see in every direction, all the traffic lights
had turned green!
"Holy cow!" said Jimmy. "He was telling the truth!"
"So it appears," said a voice at my elbow. I turned.
It was the professor. There was a sad, wistful expression
on his face. "Quod erat demonstrandum," he said softly.
"Q.E.D." Then, as the horns got louder, and we could
hear drivers cursing, he strode down the street and
around the corner.
"Professor!" I yelled. "Wait!" I started to run after
him when the horns stopped blowing. Cars started moving
again, and many of the traffic lights had turned red.
Jimmy wiped his face in obvious relief. "Must have
been a short circuit," he said hoarsely. "But for a
"Yes," I said. "A short circuit. Or maybe—a dry run
to test facilities for the big day?"
Neither one of us said anything, but we both had the
same thought as we returned to the bar. I picked up the
subway token the professor had left there. I flipped it in
the air several times and looked at Jimmy. He nodded in
agreement. I went out and headed for the nearest subway.
This etext was produced from Analog Science Fact & Fiction August
1963. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence
that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.