Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

The Drawstring Detective

The Drawstring Detective is heavier than he appears. When Char picks him up off the shelf, she almost drops him. He is a foot tall and made entirely of tin. He is dressed in charcoal-colored slacks, a white shirt and black tie, a black greatcoat, loafers, and a bowler hat, all of which are also made of tin. White gloves hold a folded umbrella. A small, tightly curled mustache stands in place of a mouth. His eyes are blue and half closed. His paint is faded and chipped in places. How old is he?

“He’s heavy,” Char tells the man behind the counter of The Conspicuously Bigger On The Inside Antique Shop. The man behind the counter tells people to call him Azim Abdulaziz, but everyone knows that his real name is Jeff. What nobody knows is that Jeff’s real real first name is the smell of burning saffron, and that his real real last name is the creases in your fingers when you’ve been in the bathtub too long.

“He’s a pain in the ass is what he is,” Azim-cum-Jeff The-Creases-In-Your-Fingers-When-You’ve-Been-In-The-Bathtub-Too-Long replies with a fake-sounding foreign accent. It sounds fake because nobody knows what a Sumerian accent sounds like.

Char turns the Drawstring Detective over. Molded into the underside of his left loafer are the words Made in Albuquirky.

A small tin ring is affixed to the Drawstring Detective’s back, between the shoulder blades. It looks uncomfortable. Char is about to pull the ring when she spies a tag stuck to it which reads Do Not Pull String! in small, tight, handwritten script. Char fingers the ring, wondering what The Drawstring Detective’s voice sounds like. She wonders what it would say if she was the kind of person who willfully ignored adamant handwritten instructions.

She weighs the doll in her hand, knowing that she ought to look at rings. Char’s wedding ring has been missing for two weeks, since the night she got carjacked by a tornado. Her husband Brad says it’s stupid to tell people that a tornado stole her car. Char’s response is that the tornado threatened her when her car stalled at a stoplight and that she had to run and hide under an overpass, at which point the tornado fled the scene with her car, so what would you call it?

The ring was her mother’s and her grandmother’s before her. Fifty years ago, Char’s grandfather came to The Conspicuously Bigger On The Inside Antique Shop because he had no money and it was said that Azim-cum-Jeff The-Creases-In-Your-Fingers-When-You’ve-Been-In-The-Bathtub-Too-Long traded in many things, and that he only accepted cash as a last resort. Char wonders what her grandfather traded for such a beautiful ring. She wonders what she has that Azim-cum-Jeff could want.

Char takes the Drawstring Detective to the front counter. Beneath the counter’s glass surface, several dozen rings are displayed on velvet pillows. There are rings of gold encrusted with diamonds, topaz, garnets, rubies, and emeralds. There are rings of silver embedded with jade and lapis lazuli. There are rings made of twisted tinfoil, bent pipe cleaners, barbed wire, and maple sugar candy. The maple sugar candy ring is very tempting.

“How much?” she asks Azim-cum-Jeff. She sets the Drawstring Detective down on the counter. Every price tag in the shop says the same thing: Please Inquire.

“Are you sure you don’t want a ring?” Azim-cum-Jeff asks. “You keep looking at my rings.”

Char—which is short for Charlotte, which she likes better but which Brad says is an old lady name—looks at the Drawstring Detective with his bowler hat and his tightly curled mustache and his chipped paint. She thinks about Brad, about how he insisted she go get a new ring so other guys wouldn’t think she was available, because a fat butt was still a butt according to Brad.

“His tag says he’s a detective,” she says. “Can he find things that are lost?”

Azim-cum-Jeff takes a long look at Char, as though her question is a strong drink that he must sip slowly.

“That depends on what you’re looking for,” he says.

“What do you want for it?” Char says.

“I want peace of mind.”

“Well,” Char sighs, “I’m afraid I don’t have much of that to spare.”

“That is why it is so valuable.”

• • • •

Char waits until she gets home to take the Drawstring Detective out of his bag. She and Brad have lived in their double-wide for five years, having bought it on the cheap because an old lady died there and was eaten by her cats who went feral and who, it is said, still prowl the neighborhood with a taste for grandmas.

Setting the Drawstring Detective on the kitchen counter next to the stack of frozen pizzas she bought for Brad, Char takes a deep breath, and pulls the ring on the tin toy’s back.

The Drawstring Detective’s tightly curled mustache is the first thing to move. A twitch to the left, a twitch to the right, then a quick left, right, left. The Drawstring Detective’s eyes close slowly, then open again with a small metallic click. From deep inside his chest comes a crackle of static, like an old radio being turned on, as the miniature man turns his head from side to side, then tilts it back to settle his calm, even gaze on Char.

“It’s probably in the drainpipe,” the Drawstring Detective says in a smooth British tenor. His voice is tinny and distant. It reminds Char of playing telephone with cans and string. His mustache twitches slightly with each word.

“What?”

“Your ring.”

The Drawstring Detective bends over to touch his toes, then squats to the ground, arms pointing straight ahead in a series of deep knee bends.

“As you are too old to play with figures of action such as myself as a means of simple diversion, I can only assume that you’ve purchased me to help you find something. I see by the band of pale flesh on your finger that you have lost your wedding ring.”

“Oh. I see.”

“And, as most people lose their wedding rings by taking them off to wash their hands, I deduce that yours is most likely stuck in the drain. Oh dear.”

The Drawstring Detective wobbles a squeaking knee.

“I cannot abide rusty hinges,” says the tin figure. “You wouldn’t happen to have an oil can on your person, would you?”

Char pats her pockets. “I don’t think so. But Brad might have something in the shed.”

The Drawstring Detective jogs in place, keeping one hand on his bowler hat, his free arm clutched to his chest with his umbrella hooked into a crooked elbow to keep it in place. “Brad?” he says.

“My husband. He’s on disability because of an accident at work.” Char wonders when that had become Brad’s defining characteristic, the first thing she says about him to strangers. “Are there many of you Drawstring Detectives?”

“At one time there were a thousand and one of us, manufactured in the Albuquirky Toy Works. Few remain now. I sometimes wonder if I am the last of us.”

Finished with his calisthenics, the Drawstring Detective straightens his hat and runs a hand down the front of his greatcoat. A fleck of black paint comes off on his fingers.

“This will never do,” he clucks.

“I might have some black nail polish?” she offers.

“Black nail polish?” The Drawstring Detective gives Char an appraising look, which is impressive given the fact that he has no mouth and his eyebrows are painted on.

• • • •

“You wear an awful lot of black for a woman who isn’t in mourning,” the Drawstring Detective says. “You’re not an agent of the Impossible Doctor Fossil, are you?”

“Doctor What?” Char says.

“Doctor Fossil. My old nemesis.”

Char dips the nail brush into the bottle, savoring the tang of the polish as it bristles the hairs in her nose. When she was a girl, Char wanted to work at a gas station so she could smell the gas all day. She used to imagine spraying gasoline all over her neck like perfume.

“I didn’t know you had a nemesis,” she says, drawing the nail brush down the Drawstring Detective’s back in a single, smooth stroke.

“He was a Detective, like me. Or rather, was meant to be. Oh!”

The Drawstring Detective sways forward and clears his tinny throat when the nail brush passes over his backside. He keeps one gloved hand gripped around his drawstring ring. When his string gets close to running out, he gives it a long pull.

“Doctor Fossil was made by the same company as the rest of us Detectives, but there was an error in his manufacture which caused a deformity. He was overheated. It gave him a hunched posture and a half-melted face. He was discarded into the scrap heap, but managed to escape to a life of crime. Which is no life at all.”

Char raises the Drawstring Detective’s arm and paints his underarm. His mustache twitches.

“That tickles.”

“Sorry.”

“No apology necessary.”

The front door opens and shuts. “Hey!” calls a man’s voice.

“Hey,” Char says, then to the Drawstring Detective, “Brad’s home.”

“What’s that smell?” a voice calls from the front door.

“Smell?” Char wipes her hands, stepping into the living room. She sniffs the air for gas or food rotting in the disposal.

Brad stands at the door, dressed in a pitted-out plaid button-down and those jeans he loves with the holes in them. He’s handsome, a face that’s filled in somewhat but which still boasts a strong chin with a cleft deep enough to floss. Clear blue eyes and thinning sand-colored hair.

“Oh, I know!” Brad says, limping to the couch. He’s been suing his old work for a year because his injury was on-the-job. The doctor’s say there are no visible injuries, but Brad insists that he’s unable to work and should get a million dollars. “It’s the smell of pizza not cooking, what a terrible smell!”

Brad laughs at his joke.

“Sorry,” Char says, opening the freezer for a pizza. “It got late and I didn’t know when you’d be home.”

“Well, maybe I could call if somebody wasn’t so late on my cell phone bill that it got cut off.”

“Sorry.” Char pulls off Brad’s shoes. “They’ve cut my hours at the salon.”

“I don’t see how that’s my problem. I still manage to get out there and look for work every day.”

“I find that highly unlikely,” says a small, tinny voice.

Char and Brad turn to find the Drawstring Detective standing on the end table beside the couch.

“What’s that?” Brad says.

“Oh, uh . . .”

“I am a detective,” answers the Drawstring Detective. “A Drawstring—”

“You bought a doll?” Brad says. “Where’d you get the money to buy a doll?”

“I am no doll, sir. I am a figure of action.”

“At the antique store,” Char says. “He’s a detective. I thought maybe he could help me find my ring. How’d the job hunting go?” she asks from the kitchen, before Brad can ask any more questions about the Drawstring Detective.

Depositing himself on the sofa, Brad turns the TV on and flips to his favorite show, America’s Funniest Surveillance Videos, where people are caught stealing or messing around at work or spitting in people’s coffee.

“How do you think it went?” he says. “I got no car, which means I gotta take the bus everywhere, so I get to my interviews all sweaty and late.”

“You could ride my bike.”

“Oh yeah, that’s real cool. I’ll be a regular chick magnet. Besides, how can I ride a bike with that insurance guy following me around everywhere? That’d go over great with the jury.”

The lawyers representing Brad’s old company hired a man to follow Brad around and take pictures of him to try and prove that his injuries weren’t real.

“Sorry, I wasn’t thinking,” Char says, bringing him a beer that cost three dollars, because Brad is allergic to the additives in domestic beer.

“That’s okay, we all make mistakes.” Brad takes the beer. “I mean, hell, I married you, didn’t I?”

Char tries to laugh with Brad, but ends up clearing her throat instead, just to give her body something to do.

The Drawstring Detective watches Brad from the end table, mustache twitching.

• • • •

“Your husband is a villain.”

“He’s not that bad. He’s just going through a rough patch.” Char washes the pizza pan in the sink. The crust cakes under her nails when she scratches it from the pan in the Sour Apple scented suds. On the counter beside her, the Drawstring Detective fences with his shadow, using his umbrella as a sword. “His dad wasn’t there much when he was a kid.”

“I never had a father,” says the Drawstring Detective. He parries, then slashes. “Or a mother.”

“Have you ever had a, you know, an owner or something that you cared about? Like a family?”

“I belonged to a twelve-year-old girl once who would hide pennies in the house and ask me to find them. She was quite charmed by me and I by her. We were very happy, until I happened upon some letters her mother had received from a man who was not the girl’s father.”

“What happened?”

The Drawstring Detective lunges at his shadow, pins it to the wall, then steps back, bows, and sheathes his umbrella in pantomime. “Suffice to say it was not the first time I’d escaped a rubbish bin. Nor was it the last.”

Char sets the pizza pan on the drying rack.

“I apologize for not offering to help wash your ovenware,” the Drawstring Detective says. “I have an aversion to water. Rust, you see.”

“That’s okay,” says Char. “I’m used to doing the chores.”

The Drawstring Detective’s mustache twitches. “Indeed.”

In the living room, Brad laughs at a show about zoo animals attacking people.

“Do you ever get lonely?” Char says. Particles of food shoot out of Brad’s mouth when he laughs. She’ll have to vacuum later, or bugs.

“I abide,” says the Drawstring Detective.

“Have you ever been, I don’t know, in love? Can toys . . . I mean, figures of action, fall in love?”

The Drawstring Detective takes off his bowler hat. The brown paint of his hair has faded to show the shiny tin beneath. It looks like a bald patch. Char wonders if she should offer to repaint it, or if that would embarrass him.

“I did have a love, once,” he says. “A great love, I dare say.”

“What was her name?”

“Daisy,” he says.

“Was she a figure of action like you?”

“She was a doll.” The Drawstring Detective tilts back on his heels, staring at the linoleum counter beneath his feet as he worries the brim of his bowler. “She had a music box instead of a voice box, so that when one pulled her string she spoke in song. She was a perfect lady. Elegant and refined, with porcelain skin and real human hair.” The Drawstring Detective turns his hat in his hands, his eyes unfocused. “She used to let me brush it. She was very expensive, far more so than me. She was Italian. Handcrafted in Venice. One-of-a-kind. I never knew what she saw in a mass-produced man such as myself.”

“What happened to her?” Char says.

The silence that follows is so long that Char is about to check the Detective’s string to make sure it hasn’t wound down when he speaks.

“She betrayed me.”

• • • •

The following evening, Char finds the Drawstring Detective in the freezer when she opens it to fix Brad’s pizza.

Like most days, it’s been one of those days. At the salon, Char caught Angela taking a twenty out of Char’s purse. Angela claimed to have seen the bill fall out of Char’s purse, and that she was just putting it back. When she got home, Char was about to tell Brad that she thought Angela may have stolen her grandmother’s ring, too, that maybe that’s how it went missing, but instead she asks what happened to his jeans, which are draped across the Formica dining table, covered in mud and torn from ankle to thigh.

“Oh my God, you should have seen it,” Brad laughs. “So I was out at The Cat Club and you know how the parking lot is just, like, this gravel pit, right? And it was raining and—

“The Cat Club? Why’d you go there?”

Brad stops, sighs, rolls his eyes. “For the lunch special, Char. I go to a strip club for the wings, just like every other guy there. God, take a look in a mirror and ask that question again, Jesus. Anyway, like I was saying, I was walking through the parking lot from the bus stop and I notice the insurance photographer rolling by with his camera and I make my crutch start to shake and I go all Whoa! Whoa! And I take this huge dive into the mud right in front of the camera and I’m all holding my foot and crying out for help and he doesn’t do squat! Just keeps on filming. How do you think the jury’s gonna like that?”

“Why would the jury know about it?”

“Well, ’cause they’ll see the video of me falling because of my injury, duh.”

“But why would the insurance company show them that video if it hurts their case?”

“Well, because . . . I mean, they . . . God, what the hell’s wrong with you, anyway? I should’ve known you wouldn’t be supportive.”

“Brad—”

“Forget it, just forget it! You obviously don’t care about what I’m trying to do for us,” Brad says.

She finds the Drawstring Detective wedged between the frozen slice of wedding cake Char and Brad still keep and the ice pack Char uses for her frequent headaches, a bag of blue sludge labeled Char’s Tit Implant #1 in Brad’s chicken scratch handwriting.

“Oh!” she says, dropping the pizza. The freezer’s temperature has been turned all the way down so that the Detective’s metal body crystalizes the moisture on Char’s hand when she grabs him, bonding her skin with his body. “Are you okay? Can you hear me?”

The Drawstring Detective does not respond. She checks his string, gives it a long, slow pull.

“Are you okay?” Char says again. “Are you—”

“I am unharmed,” answers the Drawstring Detective. His voice is slow, sluggish. “Thank you.”

“What happened?” Char’s fingers are stuck tight, wrapped around his legs. She takes a step toward the sink to run warm water over her hand, then remembers the detective’s allergy to water.

“I was looking for your ring. Your husband found me searching the contents of his bank book for evidence that he sold it.”

“Brad? He doesn’t know what a bank book is,” Char sighs, peeling her index finger from the Drawstring Detective’s body. Her skin makes a muted ripping sound like Velcro when it pulls away. She bites her lip against the pain. There is no blood. “We have a joint account. I handle the finances.”

“Hmm. Yes, well,” the detective says. “I wouldn’t bring it up if I were you. Though he would, I’d wager, have a tougher time fitting you into the freezer.”

Char smiles.

“How was your doctor’s appointment?” the Drawstring Detective asks.

Char’s eyes go wide. She hadn’t told anyone about that.

“It was fine,” she says. Then again, “It was fine.”

The Drawstring Detective’s mustache twitches.

• • • •

“Forgive my impertinence,” the Drawstring Detective says, “but you and your husband don’t . . . that is to say you and he . . . don’t seem like the best match, matrimonially speaking.”

Char sighs, and closes her eyes. The unopened Coke can in her hand is cold and soothing against her abraded palm and fingers. In the backyard, the woman and the figure of action sit and stare up at the glow of the city washing out the stars. Warm wind churns the air, bringing with it the sweet stink of cut grass and poured tar. A bottle of Passion Pink nail polish sits on the ground between them. Char is painting her toenails. She jokes that she could paint the Drawstring Detective’s hat pink, to which he responds with a twitch of his mustache.

Inside, Brad is asleep on the couch under a blanket of pizza crumbs.

“He didn’t used to be this way,” she sighs. “He was nice and funny and he had big plans.”

“What happened?”

Char shrugs. “Life happened.” She takes a sip of Coke. “He’s not a bad person. He means well,” she says, what her mother would have called a Who are you trying to convince? moment.

A water bug lands on the table. The Drawstring Detective picks it up by its wings and tosses it into the air like a discus. He clap-wipes his gloved hands, draws his pull ring out as far as it will go, and looks up at the sky.

“I was convinced that she loved me,” he says after a time. “There were still many of us Detectives back then, but Daisy only had eyes for me, or so I thought. She was seduced by the Impossible Doctor Fossil. By his charm and power and influence. He had built up a whole network of evil toys by then.”

“What happened to him?” Char asks.

“My final confrontation with Fossil was in the Albuquirky Toy Works. He had returned there to manufacture an army of Drawstring Detectives. To be twisted like himself, warped into doing his bidding. Fossil had kidnapped Daisy and taken her there. At least, that’s what Fossil’s meticulously planted clues had led me to believe.”

The Drawstring Detective’s voice fades. He removes his bowler hat, stares into it as though into a well.

“I got the better of Fossil, but Daisy got the better of me.” His eyes slowly shut, then click open. A tinny crackle marks the clearing of his throat. “She pushed both Fossil and myself over the rim of a great crucible filled with molted tin, intent on keeping Fossil’s miniature mechanical militia for her own dark deeds. I managed to save myself, which is more than I can say for Fossil, who in his death throes spilled the molten material across the factory floor, destroying the autonomous army and much of the toy works in a fire. For days I searched the ruins for some sign of Daisy.”

Char pops the top of a second Coke can, and takes a long sip. She wishes she could offer some to the tin man.

The Drawstring Detective’s mustache twitches. “If it isn’t too impertinent a question, may I ask how much I cost?”

Char smiles.

“You were very expensive,” she says.

The Drawstring Detective straightens his posture, and puts his hat back on at a jaunty angle, mustache twitching.

• • • •

The Drawstring Detective is in the bathroom, coloring the top of his head with a brown Magic Marker, when Char enters without knocking.

“Oh!” she says, backing quickly out the door. The Drawstring Detective jumps to attention and drops the marker, tries to catch it as it falls into the sink. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I should have knocked.”

“No apology necessary.” The Drawstring Detective fumbles for his bowler hat. He puts it on sideways, then straightens it. “I didn’t realize anyone was home.”

“I had to take off early because of a doctor’s appointment.” Char looks over her shoulder. “Where’s Brad?”

“I believe he went out with . . . someone.”

“Someone?”

“He received a phone call from a woman, then left soon after.”

“Oh,” says Char. “Okay. I guess . . . I guess I better get a pizza in the oven.”

“You don’t sound surprised.”

“No, I guess I’m not. I mean, I kind of figured . . .” Her voice trails off. Char wonders what kind of woman would have an affair with a man who had to take the bus to meet her because he wasn’t allowed to drive. “He always had a thing for Angela.”

“You know who it is? You must be a very good detective in your own right.”

“You don’t have to be,” Char says, then stares at nothing for a few moments before she tries on a smile. “You know the marker you were using is washable? If you get the ink wet, it’ll come right off. I have a brown Sharpie you could use.”

“Ah yes, well.” The Drawstring Detective clears his throat. “I’ll certainly bear that in mind.”

Char walks back into the living room, calls over her shoulder, her voice too cheery. “So did you find my ring yet?”

“Not yet,” the Drawstring Detective says, following her. “However, during the course of today’s investigation I did uncover three dollars and forty-two cents in loose change, a remote control for a brand of television which is no longer made, three unpaid cell phone bills dated two years ago, and a disturbing number of fingernail clippings hidden in a TV Guide. In fact . . . oh my word.”

The Drawstring Detective’s eyes click shut as Char takes off her shirt and unhooks her bra. Mustache twitching, the Detective spins on his tin heels in a quick about-face.

“It’s okay,” says Char.

“It most certainly is not. I may be tin, but I am still a gentleman.”

Arms spread like wings, Char falls back onto the bed and stares at the ceiling. A tinny crackle denotes the Drawstring Detective clearing his throat.

“Madam?” the Drawstring Detective says, eyes still shut.

“What’s up?”

“Does Brad know about the cancer?”

• • • •

Char and the Drawstring Detective do many things together.

At the beach, the Drawstring Detective buries himself in the sand, so that Char must find him with her grandfather’s old metal detector.

At the movies, the Drawstring Detective gets in for free when he hides in her purse.

At the park, they go for walks and talk about the mysteries the Drawstring Detective has solved and about how romantic Brad was when he and Char first met.

They do not talk about Daisy or Angela or doctors.

• • • •

“Okay,” Char says. “You can open your eyes.”

The Drawstring Detective’s eyes open with their familiar click.

“Do you like her?” Char bites the bottom half of her smile and rests a hand on the roof of Barbie’s Dream House. The glossy paint is smooth under her fingers, it smells of plastic and New. Barbie is seated on the sofa in a bikini. “Her name is Barbie.”

The Drawstring Detective’s mustache twitches. “Is Barbie a prostitute?”

“What? No, of course not!”

“Really? Is this Dream House not one of ill repute?”

“No, no, it’s nothing like that.”

The Drawstring Detective lowers his head to avert his gaze with the brim of his hat. “Forgive me, I’m not sure I understand. Why she is dressed as a fallen woman? Is it a costume?”

“It’s just a swimsuit. She’s just a toy like you.”

Char realizes her mistake before she says it, but not in time to stop herself. The Drawstring Detective clears his tinny throat. He removes his bowler hat and polishes it with the sleeve of his greatcoat.

“I’m sorry,” Char says. “I didn’t mean—”

“Quite all right,” the Drawstring Detective says. “No offense taken. No apology necessary.”

“Wait!” With a clap of her hands, Char is already digging through the toy store bag she snuck past Brad, who hasn’t left the sofa in three days. “I’ve got it!”

She picks Barbie up and peels off her bathing suit.

The Drawstring Detective gasps, mustache twitching furiously, his bowler pulled sharply over his face, beneath which he mumbles words like irregular and impropriety.

“What do you think?” Char says after a minute.

The Drawstring Detective removes his bowler and peers over its brim. “Hmm,” he says. Then a second time. “Hmm. Quite fetching.”

The Drawstring Detective paces a circle around Winter Wonderland Barbie, her slender figure draped head-to-toe in a great shapeless poof of fake pink fur.

“Lovely, really.” When the Drawstring Detective looks up at Barbie’s smile, he must hold his hat to keep it from falling off. “Something of an Amazon, eh wot?”

• • • •

The Drawstring Detective finds her in the bathroom. Char’s head hangs between her shoulders, elbows on her knees, hair obscuring her features.

He knocks on the door with the handle of his umbrella. When he receives no answer, he nudges it open. “Hullo?”

“I don’t understand what I did wrong,” Char says. Her voice is small. A whisper.

“I beg your pardon?” With a grunt, the Drawstring Detective shuts the door behind him. In the living room, Brad laughs at a TV show about cars crashing during police chases.

There is an envelope in Char’s hand. It’s a very large bill for a credit card she never applied for. The charges are for bars and restaurants. And motels.

“This is so much money. But that’s not even the worst! She was wearing it today. Angela was wearing my grandmother’s ring. She saw me see her wearing it and she didn’t do anything. And neither did I,” she says through her veil of hair. “I did everything for him. I tried so hard to be good. I mean, Angela? Really? She’s just so . . . I mean, I tried so hard to lose weight and wear make-up and look at magazines to see how women on TV do their hair.”

The Drawstring Detective holds his hat in his hands. “If you don’t mind my saying, a farmer can wear a three-piece suit to spread fertilizer, but it doesn’t change the fact . . .”

“. . . that I’m shoveling shit?” Char finishes. “But he’s all I have. I gave up everything for him. Not that the world was my oyster or anything, but still. All my friends moved away and I stayed for him, because he didn’t want to leave and I thought he was the best I could do. I mean, I hate my stupid job and this stupid double-wide and this stupid town. It’s just, like, if it doesn’t work with Brad, then there’s nothing good left. I couldn’t get one thing right.” Char chuckles, a little. “This is so funny: It feels like if things don’t work out with Brad, then Brad will be right about me. That I can’t do anything right. How ridiculous is that?”

“Not ridiculous,” the Drawstring Detective says, twitching his mustache. “Merely . . . human.”

Char looks up, parts her hair, tucks the frayed ends she can never get right behind her ears. “You knew,” she says. It is not an accusation. “You knew where my ring was. Right from the start.”

The Drawstring Detective lowers his head. “I did.”

She watches him try very hard to find something to look at between his loafers.

“You know, I lied when I said I never saw Daisy again,” he says, worrying the brim of his bowler in his gloved hands. “For years I searched. In secondhand shops where I stood for sale, in the homes and collections of my owners. I met many exquisitely handcrafted dolls from all over the world, but none of them were Daisy. Until one day, there she was.”

At first, Char mistakes the tinny hitch of static in the little man’s chest for his throat clearing.

“She was in a junk bin at an antique shop. They were using her for spare parts to repair other dolls. She had part of her chest left, a leg, most of an arm. They had taken her hair.”

The Drawstring Detective takes a deep breath.

“Her gearbox was rusted. She could not speak. But she did not have to. I knew from her eyes—even then she had the most beautiful emerald eyes—what she was asking of me.”

The Drawstring Detective looks up at Char. He is holding his hat so tight.

“I cut her string,” he says. “I was going to cut mine as well, but I must have lost track of time. Because the next thing I knew, I was here, and you had pulled my string. I don’t know how long I was in the antique shop before you took me home, but it feels like a long time. It feels like a very long time.”

Char reaches down, takes the Drawstring Detective’s hat from his hands, and puts it on his head.

“Thank you,” she says.

“I did nothing. You are still without your ring.”

“That’s not what was missing.”

The Drawstring Detective sighs. A certain surrender in his posture, an attempt at a smile. “At your service.”

• • • •

She’s almost packed when Brad gets home.

“What’s this?” Brad says, when he sees Char’s suitcase. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Char says after a long breath. “You can keep the suitcase. Just go.”

Brad snorts a laugh, but cannot hide the fear that fills his eyes.

“What are you t—”

“Angela?” Char says. “Seriously? Angela?”

Brad’s fear burns away in a flash, leaves anger in its ashes. “What?” Brad paints the air in front of Char with his hand, like she’s something he splashed onto a canvas. “You think all this is enough for a man like me? I settled for you, you know that right?”

Char bites her cheeks.

“I only stayed with you because I felt sorry for you,” Brad says. He grabs the suitcase, opens it, dumps out his carefully packed clothes and toiletries. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Brad storms down the hall to their bedroom where he pulls Char’s drawers out of her grandmother’s bureau. He upends the drawers onto the open suitcase, forming a small mountain of clothes.

“You remember when I gave you this?” He holds up a cheap violet nightgown with tassels on the breasts. Char has always hated it. “Do you even remember when you could still fit in this thing?”

Brad takes the nightgown and tears it down the center by its seam. He pulls a sundress out of a drawer that belonged to Char’s mother. She tries to take it from him.

“Stop,” she says. “Please, don’t.”

She reaches for the sundress. Brad tries to push her away. His elbow catches her in the hollow of her throat instead. Char folds in half, tries to swallow the fist of pain that has suddenly filled her throat. She can’t breathe. She leans onto their bed with a choked gargle.

“Hey, I didn’t mean . . .” Brad says, his voice small, shaky. “I’m sorry, I didn’t . . . come on, I know you’re faking. Seriously, stop messing around.”

He takes a step toward his wife, then cries out in pain as one of his legs buckles beneath him. From the bed, Char watches her husband crumble to the floor. She sips at the air like it’s too hot to drink, seeing stars.

“Do not touch her, rogue.” The Drawstring Detective stands on Brad’s chest. The black tip of his umbrella is missing, exposing the sharp end of a screw. The screw is covered in blood, as is the Achilles tendon of Brad’s left foot. The Drawstring Detective removes his hat and tosses it on the floor. His mustache twitches. “You will leave this house at once, and never return.”

Brad grunts a reply. He snatches the tin figure from his chest only to drop him again when the Drawstring Detective punctures the meat of Brad’s hand several times in rapid succession with the sharp end of the umbrella. Howling, Brad kicks his pint-size adversary aside, sucking on his hand, limping.

The Drawstring Detective rights himself on the carpet. “I say again, blackguard: Leave this place.”

“Screw you!” Brad lunges at the Drawstring Detective.

“Poor choice of words.” The tin figure is too quick by half, leaping aside to drive the screw-tipped umbrella into Brad’s heel. The flailing man crashes into the wall, where his head leaves a dent as he goes limp and slumps to the floor.

The Drawstring Detective takes a cautious step toward the giant. It is his undoing.

“I’m sorry you had to see that, madam. I—”

Cat-quick, Brad snatches the Drawstring Detective off the floor, pinning the figure’s arms at his sides. Brad lurches upright and shuffles out the bedroom door. When she can draw enough air to move, Char is on her feet, pursuing him.

Brad, she tries to say, but nothing will come out. It’s all she can do to trail him down the hall, staggering in his clumsy wake as he charges out the kitchen door and into the shed, locking the little door behind him in the moment before she reaches the knob. A moment later, the high whine of the table saw cuts the air like a scream.

• • • •

By the time the police arrive, called there by the photographer working for the insurance company, who took a half-dozen pictures of the punch that knocked Char down, Char’s fists have bloodied themselves on the shed’s door, fingernails splintered on the deadbolt that locked from the inside. The strength is gone from her legs. The EMTs take her to the hospital to see to her hands and her bruised throat. She tries to tell them to take her back, to let her into the shed once they’ve hauled Brad away, who, for a convalescing plaintiff in a lawsuit, appeared to put up a healthy struggle against the police while the photographer took picture after picture before handing his card to Char.

• • • •

It’s past midnight by the time Char gets home. Angela from work came to the hospital to give her a ride. With no money for a cab, she was the only person Char could get a hold of. When the woman arrived at the hospital, she was still wearing Char’s ring. They were halfway to Char’s house when Angela casually put her hand in her pocket, wiggled it there for a minute, and pulled it out again, ringless.

• • • •

“Oh God.”

The Drawstring Detective lies in pieces. A leg here. An arm there. A head and torso. The tools of his dismantling are scattered across the worktable: a hammer, an electric sander, a cutting torch. His hat is gone, which is somehow the worst.

By some miracle, one of the Drawstring Detective’s arms is still attached to his body. The hand still holds his drawstring’s pull ring.

His mustache twitches endlessly.

The Drawstring Detective’s single remaining eye clicks closed when it sees Char, then opens again.

“It . . . it’ll be okay,” Char says. Gathering his parts with slow, shaking fingers, she speaks in hitches and half-sobs. “I’ll take you back to the antique shop and they’ll fix you.”

When he speaks, the Drawstring Detective’s voice is choked with static. “Wait. Stop.”

Char stops, clutching her fingers and grinding her teeth against the words she knows will come.

“Please,” the Drawstring Detective says. “Cut my string.”

“No,” Char whimpers. “I can’t.”

“I am broken.”

“You’re my friend.”

“That is why you must.”

“But . . . but . . .”

“Please.”

Char deflates. She casts her gaze about the worktable and finds a pair of industrial cutting shears. Its blades are covered in tin splinters and flecks of black paint.

Slowly, gently, she takes the pull ring from the Drawstring Detective’s hand. He rests his hand on her thumb.

She cuts the string, and allows it to slip slowly through her fingers.

“Wait!” she says. “Oh wait!”

She looks around, frantic, searching the workbench, the floor.

She finds his bowler hat crushed beneath a chair leg. She raises the Drawstring Detective’s head and puts it on his glossy brown pate. The string is almost gone.

“Thank you,” he says.

“At your service,” she says.

His mustache twitches in what might be a smile, until it doesn’t.

• • • •

The Curiously Bigger on the Inside Antique Shop keeps unusual hours. Char shouldn’t be surprised that Azim-cum-Jeff is still behind the counter when she knocks on the storefront door after midnight.

“Are you still open?” she calls through the glass door, thinking maybe he forgot to lock up. And then forgot to go home.

Coming around from behind the counter, Azim-cum-Jeff taps the STORE HOURS sign with his finger. The sign reads that they don’t close until Too Late O’Clock. He opens the door a crack.

“Is it . . .” Charlotte starts to ask.

“Too late? Almost. But not quite,” Azim-cum-Jeff says, opening the door wide. “If my wife had her way, it would never be too late. But that’s a woman for you.”

“Can you fix him?” She lays the pieces of the Drawstring Detective on the counter beside a book called The Laws of Thermodymagics.

“That depends on what’s broken.”

“Everything,” Charlotte sputters, near panic. “He’s in a million p—”

Azim-cum-Jeff puts a box on the counter. It’s filled with doll pieces, arms and legs and feet, articles of doll clothes.

“He’s not so bad off. I made him out of spare parts, anyway.”

“Wait, what? I . . . you made him?”

“Of course. You see on the foot? Made in Albuquirky. I put that there. A joke, you see?”

Azim-cum-Jeff fishes through his box of spare doll parts and pulls out a right hand, a left foot, a hat.

“Wait,” Charlotte says, “so he didn’t . . . what about all the things he said? About Dr. Fossil and . . . and the Italian doll who betrayed him?”

“The what now?”

“He told me—” Charlotte’s words turn to smoke in her mouth as she watches Azim-cum-Jeff reassemble the tin figure from pieces in the spare parts box. Finally, he opens the Drawstring Detective’s chest cavity. It’s empty. No gears, no voice box. Just a coil of yellowed string. He holds up the string.

“You want me to put a new ring on this? I mean, it still won’t do anything, but I always thought it added a certain authenticity.”

Charlotte doesn’t know what to say. She feels like somebody cut her own string.

“No,” she says at last. “That’s okay.” She moves a hand through her hair. “What do I owe you?”

“What have you got?”

“Just this,” she says, gesturing to the tin figure of action.

“Then take it,” says Azim-cum-Jeff. “On the house.”

Charlotte says thank you, or thinks she says it. She isn’t sure of anything when she takes the Drawstring Detective and walks stiffly toward the door, as though her own joints need oiling.

“Take care of him,” says Azim-cum-Jeff before the door closes behind Charlotte. “And whatever you do, don’t call him a doll. He hates that.”

Charlotte stops, overcome by the sudden feeling that if she turns around, the Curiously Bigger on the Inside Antique Shop will no longer be there.

She turns, slowly, and glances over her shoulder.

Azim-cum-Jeff stands behind the counter, smelling his armpit.

Charlotte gets into her car. The Drawstring Detective lies on the front passenger seat with his new mismatched hands and feet, his new purple leg and his new green arm, his new wide-brimmed purple fedora. All of which can be repainted, she knows. She leans down and sits him upright. He falls forward, exposing the loose tassel of string hanging from his back.

Charlotte takes her grandmother’s ring, which she stole out of Angela’s pocket when they hugged stiffly at her house, off her finger and ties it to the tin figure of action’s string, which automatically snakes itself back into the torso.

She takes a breath, holds it, closes her eyes.

And pulls the string.

Nothing happens.

She pulls the string again.

Nothing.

“I’m sorry,” she says, her words a hitching sob. She didn’t know she was crying. “I’m so sorry.”

“Well, I should hope so,” says a tinny voice beside her, full of hisses and pops of disapproval. “This hat is ludicrous.”

—EDITOR’S NOTE: For further reading of the many adventures of Charlotte and the Drawstring Detective please see The Cancer Caper, The Great Escape from Hickville, The Affair of the Handsome New Landlord, and others.

Nik Houser

Nik HouserNik Houser’s earliest memory of writing fiction is of composing a letter to Santa as a school assignment in the Second Grade. Having never believed in Santa, you can imagine his surprise when he got a reply from Mr. Claus stating that he would not be getting what he asked for. It was his very first rejection letter. Thankfully, he has since received acceptance letters from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Cemetery Dance, and numerous others. Red Rover, a dark novella about an amnesiac dog with PTSD searching for a kidnapped infant, is available on the Kindle. In his free time, Nik enjoys knitting and performing stand-up comedy. For contact info, free fiction, and some cartoons, please visit www.nikhouser.com.