Bradshaw looked across at me and raised an eyebrow quizzically. As the Bellmanthe head of JurisfictionI shouldn't really be out on assignment at all, but I was never much of a desk jockey, and capturing the Minotaur was important. He had killed one of our own, and that made it unfinished business.
During the past week, we had searched unsuccessfully through six Civil War epics, three frontier stories, twenty-eight high-quality westerns and ninety-seven dubiously penned novellas before finding ourselves within Death at Double-X Ranch, right on the outer rim of what might be described as acceptably written prose. We had drawn a blank in every single book. No Minotaur, nor even the merest whiff of one, and believe me, they can whiff.
"A possibility?" asked Bradshaw, pointing at the PROVIDENCE sign.
"We'll give it a try," I replied, slipping on a pair of dark glasses and consulting my list of potential Minotaur hiding places. "If we draw a blank, we'll stop for lunch before heading off into The Oklahoma Kid."
Bradshaw nodded and opened the breech of the hunting rifle he was carrying and slipped in a cartridge. It was a conventional weapon, but loaded with unconventional ammunition. Our position as the policing agency within fiction gave us licensed access to abstract technology. One blast from the eraserhead in Bradshaw's rifle and the Minotaur would be reduced to the building blocks of his fictional existence: text and a bluish mistall that is left when the bonds that link text to meaning are severed. Charges of cruelty failed to have any meaning when at the last Beast Census there were over a million almost identical Minotaurs, all safely within the hundreds of books, graphic novels and urns that featured him. Ours was differentan escapee. A PageRunner.
As we walked closer, the sounds of a busy Nebraskan frontier town reached our ears. A new building was being erected, and the hammering of nails into lumber punctuated the clop of horses' hooves, the clink of harnesses and the rumble of cartwheels on compacted earth. The metallic ring of the blacksmith's hammer mixed with the distant tones of a choir from the clapboard church, and all about was the general conversational hubbub of busy townsfolk. We reached the corner by Eckley's Livery Stables and peered cautiously down the main street.
Providence as we now saw it was happily enjoying the uninterrupted backstory, patiently awaiting the protagonist's arrival in two pages' time. Blundering into the main narrative thread and finding ourselves included within the story was not something we cared to do, and since the Minotaur avoided the primary story line for fear of discovery, we were likely to stumble across him only in places like this. But if for any reason the story did come anywhere near, I would be warnedI had a Narrative Proximity Device in my pocket that would sound an alarm if the thread came too close. We could hide ourselves until it passed by.
A horse trotted past as we stepped up onto the creaky decking that ran along in front of the saloon. I stopped Bradshaw when we got to the swinging doors as the town drunk was thrown out into the road. The bartender walked out after him, wiping his hands on a linen cloth.
"And don't come back till you can pay your way!" he yelled, glancing at us both suspiciously.
I showed the barkeeper my Jurisfiction badge as Bradshaw kept a vigilant lookout. The whole western genre had far too many gunslingers for its own good; there had been some confusion over the numbers required on the order form when the genre was inaugurated. Working in westerns could sometimes entail up to twenty-nine gunfights an hour.
"Jurisfiction," I told him. "This is Bradshaw, I'm Next. We're looking for the Minotaur."
The barkeeper stared at me coldly. "Think you's in the wrong genre, pod'ner," he said.
Excerpted from Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde. Copyright Jasper Fforde 2004. All rights reserved
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