". . . There are two schools of thought about the resilience of time. The first is that time is highly volatile, with every small event altering the possible outcome of the earth's future. The other view is that time is rigid, and no matter how hard you try, it will always spring back toward a determined present. Myself, I do not worry about such trivialities. I simply sell ties to anyone who wants to buy one . . ."
Tie seller in Victoria, June 1983
My pager had delivered a disconcerting message; the unstealable had just been stolen. It was not the first time the Martin Chuzzlewit manuscript had been purloined. Two years before it had been removed from its case by a security man who wanted nothing more than to read the book in its pure and unsullied state. Unable to live with himself or decipher Dickens's handwriting past the third page, he eventually confessed and the manuscript was recovered. He spent five years sweating over lime kilns on the edge of Dartmoor.
Gad's Hill Palace was where Charles Dickens lived at the end of his life, but not where he wrote Chuzzlewit. That was at Devonshire Terrace, when he still lived with his first wife, in 1843. Gad's Hill is a large Victorian building near Rochester which had fine views of the Medway when Dickens bought it. If you screw up your eyes and ignore the oil refinery, heavy water plant and the ExcoMat containment facility, it's not too hard to see what drew him to this part of England. Several thousand visitors pass through Gad's Hill every day, making it the third-most popular area of literary pilgrimage after Anne Hathaway's cottage and the Bronts' Haworth House.
Such huge numbers of people had created enormous security problems; no one was taking any chances since a deranged individual had broken into Chawton, threatening to destroy all Jane Austen's letters unless his frankly dull and uneven Austen biography was published. On that occasion no damage had been done, but it was a grim portent of things to come. In Dublin the following year an organized gang attempted to hold Jonathan Swift's papers to ransom. A protracted siege developed that ended with two of the extortionists shot dead and the destruction of several original political pamphlets and an early draft of Gulliver's Travels. The inevitable had to happen. Literary relics were placed under bullet-proof glass and guarded by electronic surveillance and armed officers. It was not the way anyone wanted it, but it seemed the only answer. Since those days there had been few major problems, which made the theft of Chuzzlewit all the more remarkable.
I parked my car, clipped my SO-27 badge into my top pocket and pushed my way through the crowds of pressmen and gawkers. I saw Boswell from a distance and ducked under a police line to reach him.
"Good morning, sir," I muttered. "I came as soon as I heard."
He put a finger to his lips and whispered in my ear:
"Ground-floor window. Took less than ten minutes. Nothing else."
Then I saw. Toad News Network's star reporter Lydia Startright was about to do an interview. The finely coiffured TV journalist finished her introduction and turned to us both. Boswell employed a neat sidestep, jabbed me playfully in the ribs and left me alone under the full glare of the news cameras.
"-of Martin Chuzzlewit, stolen from the Dickens Museum at Gad's Hill. I have with me Literary Detective Thursday Next. Tell me, Officer, how it was possible for thieves to break in and steal one of literature's greatest treasures?"
I murmured "bastard!" under my breath to Boswell, who slunk off shaking with mirth. I shifted my weight uneasily. With the enthusiasm for art and literature in the population undiminished, the LiteraTec's job was becoming increasingly difficult, made worse by a very limited budget.
From The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Copyright © February 2002, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
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