"Was that a double negative?" whispered Bradshaw with disdain. "I do so hate them."
"No deal unless I meet Mr. Johnson first!" I yelled back.
"Then there's no deal!" came the reply.
I looked out again and saw three more gunmen appear. The Minotaur had clearly made a lot of friends during his stay in the western genre.
"We need backup," I murmured.
Bradshaw clearly thought the same. He opened his TravelBook and pulled out something that looked a little like a flare gun. This was a TextMarker, which could be used to signal to other Jurisfiction agents. The TravelBook was dimensionally ambivalent; the device was actually larger than the book that contained it.
"Jurisfiction knows we're in western pulp; they just don't know where. I'll send them a signal."
He dialed in the sort of TextMarker he was going to place, using a knob on the back of the gun, then moved to the door, aimed the marker into the air and fired. There was a dull thud, and the projectile soared into the sky. It exploded noiselessly high above us, and for an instant I could see the text of the page in a light gray against the blue of the sky. The words were back to front, of course, and as I looked at Bradshaw's copy of Death at Double-X Ranch, I noticed that the written word "ProVIDence" had been partially capitalized. Help would soon arrivea show of force would deal with the gunmen. The problem was, would the Minotaur make a run for it or fight it out to the end?
"Purty fireworks don't scare us, missy," said the voice again. "You comin' out, or do we-uns have to come in and get yer?"
I looked across at Bradshaw, who was smiling. "What?"
"This is all quite a caper, don't you think?" said the Commander, chuckling like a schoolboy who had just been caught stealing apples. "Much more fun than hunting elephant, wrestling lions to the ground and returning tribal knickknacks stolen by unscrupulous foreigners."
"I used to think so," I said under my breath. Two years of assignments like these had been enjoyable and challenging, but not without their moments of terror, uncertainty and panicand I had a two-year-old son who needed more attention than I could give him. The pressure of running Jurisfiction had been building for a long time now, and I needed a break in the real worlda long one. I had felt it about six months before, just after the adventure that came to be known as the Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco, but had shrugged it off. Now the feeling was backand stronger.
A low, deep rumble began somewhere overhead. The windows rattled in their frames, and dust fell from the rafters. A crack opened up in the plaster, and a cup vibrated off the table to break on the floor. One of the windows shattered, and a shadow fell across the street. The deep rumble grew in volume, drowned out the Narrative Proximity Device that was wailing plaintively, then became so loud it didn't seem like a sound at alljust a vibration that shook the sheriff's office so strongly my sight blurred. Then, as the clock fell from the wall and smashed into pieces, I realized what was going on.
"Oh... no!" I howled with annoyance as the noise waned to a dull roar. "Talk about using a sledgehammer to crack a nut!"
"Emperor Zhark?" queried Bradshaw.
"Who else would dare pilot a Zharkian battle cruiser into western pulp?"
We looked outside as the vast spaceship passed overhead, its vectored thrusters swiveling downwards with a hot rush of concentrated power that blew up a gale of dust and debris and set the livery stables on fire. The huge bulk of the battle cruiser hovered for a moment as the landing gear unfolded, then made a delicate touchdownright on top of McNeil and his horse, who were squashed to the thickness of a ha'penny.
Excerpted from Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde. Copyright Jasper Fforde 2004. All rights reserved
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