Chapter 1

I woke up, rubbed my eyes, and dragged myself out of a worn Murphy bed… Hang on. I know what you are thinking. This is what main characters always do in the opening paragraphs of bad novels. They wake up, or they dream, or the author starts describing the weather.

You know you are in for a rough read when a character wakes up in the first sentence. Of course, you might at this very moment be remembering several great novels that open with the hero rising and shining. I won’t argue with you – they do exist. There are exceptions to every rule. My novels, however, were not among those exceptions.

My name is Richly Drawn. I am a fictional character. I live in the realm of written human imagination. Here’s an easy way to tell that I’m a character and not an actual human: no real person would have a name like Richly Drawn, not unless his parents subscribed to the A Boy Named Sue-tradition of parenting. It is the kind of name given to a character by an oh-so-clever author trying desperately to stand apart. Naturally, there’s a reason the name is unique. Richly Drawn is a stupid goddamn name.

But then again, my author is a stupid, goddamn author.

After I’m done waking up, my writer always has me walk about my apartment, describing it as – and I quote – “a sparsely furnished bachelor pad, never having seen a woman’s touch.” In all three books about me, he repeats this sentence. Not even a comma changes. After that, my writer typically has me look into the bathroom mirror, where my chiseled chin always points back at me, and my steely blue eyes give me a sharp look of approval.

That was all I got, description-wise – a chiseled chin, and steely blue eyes. My writer didn’t bother describing more of me, other than that I wear a cream-colored suit and duster, whip-smart yet seldom seen suspenders, and a matching fedora. Oh yes, there was one more description always given of me – that I’m a gumshoe.

That’s an interesting word. Gumshoe. It belongs to great characters like Sam Spade, or Philip Marlow, or any other superior hardboiled detective in fiction. When I was written, my creator modeled me after Spade, or at least, he thought he did. Not that he bothered to read Dashiell Hammett. As far as I know, he read the first two chapters of The Maltese Falcon, got impatient, and immediately rented the 1941 film version. Yes, the movie is great – it’s one of the best films ever made – but Sam Spade was born on the page, and all my creator stole from the book was a brief tidbit here, and a line there. The rest he copied from Bogie.

Okay, I know, this is all very meta-fictional and confusing. Ranting through pages of exposition will only make it worse. I guess I should get on with the story... before it is too late.

You see, there’s a chance I won’t live to finish it. Perhaps I’ll just stop mid-sentence, leaving you with an unfinished tale. I hope it won’t come to that, and that I’ll have time to bring you along all the way to The End, but I can’t make any promises, because my world is dying.

Damn. I should have opened with that. Much better than waking up and looking into the mirror. My world is dying – dramatic, powerful, and effective. Okay, maybe it isn’t highly literate à la Steinbeck or Fitzgerald, but it certainly works for a pulpy detective story like mine. At least, it sure is better than opening with me stumbling out of bed. Do you believe in second chances? I do, so let’s pretend my story starts… right… here:





My world is dying.

It is fading away. Unread. Unloved. Ignored by human readers.

Fictional characters like me are immortal. We can get shot, blown-up, drowned, burned, or pancaked underfoot of a huge kaiju, but give us a few minutes, and we return to life. I speak from experience.

Why are we immortal? Simple, we live because our death scenes are only part of our stories, usually a small part at that. The rest of the time, the text, film, or game-code has us alive. That makes us immortal. Only way to kill a fictional character is if nothing remains of his or her fiction. If a book or film or game exists in the world of humans, then we – the figments of human imagination – cannot die.

Little did I realize that the rules were about to change. Someone found a way to permanently erase characters from books that still exist. I know, because as I’m telling you this story, I am fading away. Several copies of my books remain on Earth, yet that doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I’m still fading.

Not that I’m bitter... because I had this one final adventure, one far greater than anything I had experienced in the plots of my seldom-read books. In these last moments of my existence, I will tell you this story. And even if you aren’t there to listen, even if I’m telling this story to no one in particular, I will still relive my tale – because it was worth my unhappy ending.

Like so many stories told by a man, it starts with a beautiful woman. You’ll meet her in this first chapter, albeit only briefly. I’m sure you’ll know it when you see her. She’s not someone created by my author. For that to have happened, he would have had to do some serious heavy lifting, and you know, quality writing.

I never had a femme fatale worth my while. The women in my books usually just had to be rescued and then fell into bed with me. Not one of those dames had wit, and they could scarcely maintain a conversation. They weren’t written to be interesting.

I suppose I’m lucky. As the lead character in my three novels, I’m the best-written one – not that this is saying much.

Right now, you’re probably a bit confused. Not at all unusual for a reader of a Richly Drawn story. My writer never really explains things clearly, and it is often up to me to sum up the plots of my novels in an overly lengthy monologue at the end. My secretary, Dora – the Moneypenny to my James Bond – she smiles and nods as I bloviate my way through an undercooked plot with a deus ex machina ending.

But this is not one of my author’s books. It is my story. I get to tell it my way. First thing I’ll do is switch tenses. My writer often prefers present tense, even when talking about the past. That always irked me. And besides, my story did already happen, so it’s only fair that I tell it that way. I just hope I’ll have enough time to reach the bitter end.

“Okay,” I sighed, turning away from my reflection in the bathroom mirror.

My apartment was small. I took five steps. That was all I needed to enter my cramped kitchen. I rarely bothered raising the Murphy bed, which left me even less living space. Not that I required much. There were no pictures on my walls, no mementos of past cases, and no knick-knacks displayed for the sake of making the apartment a home. There didn’t seem like much of a point to try.

I lived a lonely life, one fueled by caffeine and whiskey. Speaking of coffee, I needed a cup badly. My coffee tin was empty. I reached into the overflowing trash can and picked out yesterday’s filter, complete with most of its soaked grinds. My writer saw a Paul Newman movie once where Newman’s character did this, and he stole it. Now I do this every single morning.

I drank the weak coffee, trying my best to savor it. My routine was to hang around in my realm for long enough to check in at the office, and then go traveling to other stories. Most characters tend to stay in their own plots, reenacting them. That’s our purpose – the sole reason we exist. But, living a dull plot is even worse than reading it. Hardly any of my supporting characters bother playing their parts anymore. I can’t say I blame them. Their inaction won’t change the plots – those are locked – ever firm on the page in the human world. But if you live in a great story, then it is impossible not to get swept up in it, no matter if you’re the lead character or an ambience extra.

With nothing to do in my own world, I tend to have a lot of time on my hands. I go to the movies, or I hang out at the library, or – best of all – I become a tourist. As a character, I can travel to other stories, seeing them with my own two eyes.

Wondering what world to visit, I considered several options. I’d spent the previous day at Nakatomi Plaza. Poor Hans Gruber kept falling out of windows.

 And the day before, I’d visited the space station Sevastopol, watching Amanda Ripley being chased relentlessly by her mother’s arch-enemy – the terrifying alien Xenomorph. I took great care to give the creature a wide berth. Make no mistake, even though the Alien is fictional, that thing can rip you apart in a split second given the chance. Of course, with my knack for tailing things, I was able to observe the action unhurt. If the Alien had gotten me, it would have been a painful death for sure. Being immortal is all well and good, but dying still hurts like hell, both as it happens, and when you wake up afterwards. Just ask Mr. Gruber.

I adjusted my suspenders, grabbing my cream-colored fedora and matching trench coat. That was my look in each of my books – kind of like Dick Tracy, in case you need help picturing it. I’ve never worn anything else.

I stepped out the door and rushed down the stairs, taking the steps two at the time. There were so many worlds I wanted to see, and I wondered if perhaps this was the day to brave the works of author Jane Austen. I always felt like an unmannered lout when in the company of her characters. Elizabeth Bennett would say something cleverly prideful or prejudiced, and I’d chuckle stupidly. Even the zombies recently added to that world don’t stick out as much as I do. Of course, the major characters will ignore me when I’m there. I’m just a tourist – a spectator. They would make an exception if a truly famous character came to visit, say like Sam Spade, but insignificant characters like me, we try to give the stars some space.

No, I decided, I wasn’t going to any Austenland today. I’d feel too awkward, and too conscious of my lack of human readers.

Perhaps I’d come up with a suitable destination on my walk into the office. I tried ignoring the blaring car horns, and pushed on down the sidewalk. This was early 1940’s Los Angeles, and while my author had failed to describe it, the world had fortunately taken its cues from the cinema of that era. The buildings were all American art deco. Brick and concrete skyscrapers reached fifteen floors high, blocking the bright morning sun. Storefronts featured their wares through glossy display windows. Outside, tables filled with fruits, used books, magazines, and pipes encroached onto the freshly hosed-down pavement. Grocers clad in aprons hustled back and forth, getting ready for a day of commerce. 

I liked these morning walks the best, before the nightly scents of urine, up-chuck, and tobacco stank up the streets. Ambience characters shuffled around me, filling the sidewalks with anonymous faces. The men wore elegant hats and trim, conservative wool suits – far too warm for the sweltering California heat. They all carried brown leather suitcases with their initials engraved in gold below the handle. The women were equally stylish, clad in form fitting, patterned dresses. They slinked away in tall shoes, their broad shoulders sashaying down the avenues. Street urchins in oversized caps ran among the crowds, shouting and taunting each other in James Cagney-street slang. Delivery boys in smart uniforms biked among the cars. They balanced wooden crates stacked on the fronts of their bicycles, mouthing off to the cab drivers battling them for the domain of the road. It was an America I felt sure had never actually existed, except as seen through the lens of Hollywood films, but in my world, it was just another morning.

A few inquisitive souls braved a glance at me, quietly acknowledging that I was hot stuff in my realm. This didn’t make me feel any pride or satisfaction, though if they acknowledged me I always gave them a nod in reply.

I smiled at a smartly dressed woman pushing a stroller, winked at a pretty ingénue (making her blush, of course), and tipped my hat at a cop walking his beat. They all loved the attention.

Yet I felt like a fraud. They deserved a better lead character than me.

A cabbie screeched to a halt as a delivery boy cut him off. The angry honk caused a flock of pigeons to scatter. One swept by my face, making me turn sideways to avoid getting hit.

That was when I saw her.

The woman stared back at me, hiding in a dark doorway, away from the crowds – away from all other characters. She was stunning, stoic, and not of this world. Literally. She wasn’t one of my author’s characters, which usually amounted to a blond sex kitten desperately needing my help. No, this lady was something different, something special… something haunting.

The woman looked straight at me, unafraid. I returned the gaze, and her expression slowly changed. The hardness of her exotic features softened, and her stern mouth opened just a little, as if puzzled.

I drank in her striking Mesopotamian features. Her long face was elegant, with high cheekbones, a narrow, mildly hooked nose, and slim yet dramatic eyebrows that seemed to furrow constantly down. The dark-eyed gaze, partially hidden behind several strands of wavy hair, was like that of a hunter. She reminded me of an osprey, prowling my world from high above. Once upon a time, her skin had been a dark tan, and her eyes a blackened brown, but that part of her had washed away. Now, she was gray – as gray as any leading lady in a classic film noir. This lack of color betrayed her. Nobody had read her story for ages.

Being gray wasn’t unusual for the denizens of my world – we were all low on readers, and thus, on life force. That made the colors of our world – and of us personally – seem washed-out. But this lady, with her tight, home-woven tunic, armored ancient-looking leather pants, and her elbow-length hide gloves – she was grayer than anyone I’d ever laid eyes on.

My god, I thought, she’s a tourist.

That was rare. Nobody came to visit my story, especially not a character as faded and close to oblivion as this dame. Most of them would want to visit a richer, more vivid world, one where colors remained strong. They’d go watch Scooby and the gang solve mysteries in prime colors, or Chiron search for love and identity under the blue moonlight of Florida, or the pink and positive Babe the Pig herd sheep.

Whatever she was doing here, in my insignificant tale, I was going to thank her for visiting. I gave her a confident nod and a winning smile.

“Thanks aplenty,” I said.

The gray woman took a surprised step back, her body pressed against the wall. Her narrow, focused eyes widened, soaking in the sight of me as I passed her by. Turning my head, I was unable to peel my gaze off her. And she kept looking back at me, unblinking. Feeling sheepish, I gave her a small wave. She gasped, then quickly darted down the street, taking care to avoid ambient characters.

“That’s strange,” I said to no one in particular.

As anyone remotely familiar with storytelling would have already guessed, this event wasn’t merely an odd encounter, but rather something profound. I’d be seeing the mysterious woman again.

I kept looking after her, hoping she’d glance back at me. I didn’t know what about her I found so alluring, but I wanted more of it. Then, she vanished around a corner, without looking back even once. I sighed and returned my focus on what world to explore. Perhaps I could go visit Some Like It Hot – I was in the mood for a good laugh. But that story took place during prohibition.

Best get a drink first, I thought.

Duke’s Bar was on a corner two blocks down from my apartment. Long past its glory days, Duke’s now only seemed to serve alcoholics and private detectives. A parade of cars honked as they passed – cars always did that in my world. It added to the atmosphere, though my writer had – of course – gone over the top in describing them, which meant that the drivers blew their horns about fifteen times a minute. With hundreds of Packards, DeSotos, and Hudsons currently pushing through the gridlock, it meant some blowhard was always honking. Silently cursing the drivers and delivery boys alike, I put my hands over my ears and quickly rounded the corner, hurrying through the green front door.

Bartender and owner Duke Lorraine spat into a glass, applied a worn rag, and mechanically went about cleaning it. The dusty place overflowed with atmosphere. That was it. That was how it was written: overflowing with atmosphere. No details, or any further useful description for a potential reader. What my nincompoop author meant was that the place looked moody.

I knew I could do better taking matters into my own hands. If I’d written my own stories, I would have said this:

Beams of light penetrated the constantly drawn blinds. They threw bright pinprick spots across the uneven, wooden floor, and onto the seldom-used booths. Dust seemed to dance in these little cones of light, creating an illusion of movement in what was otherwise a dead establishment. Even if my world had been rich with life force, Duke’s bar would have been well past its prime. The oval ceiling lamps were covered in filth, faintly browning, and always exuding a whiff of burnt dust. They barely gave light. What little illumination they did produce reflected in the stacked, half-full bottles behind the bar. The amber liquids shimmered, acting as mirrors. The actual mirror, stretching from one end of the bar to the other, had dulled and worn out. It was full of cracks from various police raids in the 1920’s, back when Duke’s had been an illegal speakeasy. The ornate, flowery decorations surrounding the mirror had long since broken off, leaving the place a whisper of what it once was. The only colors remaining in the room were the cracked, bright-green leather stools, but they didn’t match the darker green hue of the front door – a door that had only been added after prohibition was lifted. The effect was an uninviting mess, but to me – it was a sanctuary.

Duke greeted me with a distracted nod. He was one of my pals. Duke Lorraine had been named after the seldom seen bartender and buddy of Martin Crane in the television sitcom Frasier. Duke, my Duke that is, could always be counted on to have a not-so-clever remark about the state of the city. He never left the bar, always present and ready to lend an ear when I had trouble with a case. I’d pour my heart out about the difficulty identifying the murderer in my novels, though I’m sure my readers were way ahead of me. Duke would listen, nodding solemnly. He’d do the same when I brainstormed new worlds to visit. Duke never had any suggestions of his own, except to ask what the wine was like in a given world, so it was up to me to figure out where to go. He never smiled, nor did he frown, though honestly, his overgrown walrus mustache and bushy red eyebrows probably hid whatever minor expressions he did have. Duke was the least emotional character I had ever met.

And yet, today, he was ashen.

“Whisky,” I said.

Duke poured me a glass. His hand trembled. Beads of sweat cascaded down his bald, oxen-sized head, dripping onto the counter.

“Thanks aplenty.”

Duke just stood there, his face drawn into a horrified grimace.

“What’s the matter, old chum?”

“It’s Dorothy Gale,” Duke answered, as if that would explain everything.

“What about her?”

“She’s dead.”

Well that didn’t make sense. How could Dorothy Gale be dead? She was one of the greatest literary heroines of all time, with equally fantastic cinematic and video game works created about her. There was no chance they’d vanished all at once. Thus, she was immortal and absolutely not dead.

“What do you mean, dead?”

“I dunno. I just heard. They say she’s dead.”

“What about Oz? What about her world?”

“I dunno,” Duke repeated.

“Did somebody write a story where she dies, or something?”

That had to be it. Dorothy Gale didn’t die in most tales about her, or any, for all I knew. She was a hero, and she was supposed to survive.

“No, not like killed dead,” Duke stuttered. “She’s gone. She’s… faded.”

I stared at him, almost chuckling.

Duke looked back at me, his eyes haunted.

“You’re not pulling my leg, are you?”

He shook his head. Dorothy Gale – the savior of Oz, scourge of Wicked Witches, and one of the greatest characters of all time – had been ripped from the fictional world, erased and shuffled off to the void. Yet the works featuring her still remained. They had to remain… right?

This didn’t make sense. Characters like me could easily vanish. After all, there were only a few copies of my books left. I was doomed to fade sometime over the next couple of decades. But not someone like Dorothy. It wasn’t possible. She could not fade, not as long as a copy of her books or films survived in the human world. She was beloved. And she was adapted. As long as the planet Earth remained, Dorothy Gale was indestructible and never-ending.

While I didn’t understand it at that moment, I would soon learn that the rules of the fictional world had changed.

Famous characters were no longer immortal.

Next Chapter: Just in case you were wondering