Chapter 1

Erato's current headquarters were at the back of a hot, smoky bar in Montreal, Canada. The walls were red and the lamps hanging from the ceilings were shaped like yellow pumpkins. I saw a stage with a rickety old upright piano on it, a microphone and a wooden stool. I saw a lanky young man greeting everyone who came in, probably the host. The clientele was mostly young and multiethnic; I counted four eyebrow piercings, two visible tattoos and one girl wearing striped red-and-white pantyhose under a short skirt even though it was December. There was also a Cubist painting of what I think was a naked woman.

Erato was curled up in a red plush armchair, reading a very thin book. The table in front of her had a glass top and was shaped like a comma. The wallpaper was black with I think was a naked woman, which Erato, my boss, had told me was the new entrance. I de-materialized, wafted through the painting, and there the occasional red or orange splatter, as if a child had painted it. The lamp was shaped like a huge red rose and was reflected in the glass table. Erato looked up, closed her book, and smiled.

"Hey there," she said.

I was about to bow when she cut me off with a wave of her red-nail-polished hand. "Oh, honey, stop," she purred in her smoky voice. "This is the twenty-first century, remember?"

She wore faux cowboy boots, tight jeans with a rhinestone belt and a pink V-neck sweater. Her hoop earrings were red plastic, as was the heart pendant she wore. Her hair was dyed black and she wore it in a messy ponytail. She could have easily passed for one of the young students in the bar - but she wasn't. Erato, the Muse of Lyric Poetry, simply likes to keep up with the times.

"You asked to see me?" I reminded her.

"Uh-huh." Her ponytail bounced as she nodded.

"Is it a new assignment?"

Please, I thought. It would be my first one in fifteen years.

"Uh-huh. And it's, like, really good." Erato beamed, grabbed a backpack from the floor and began rummaging inside. "I just got the memo from the Fates and I'm telling you, this guy's destiny could change the entire future of Earth's literature. Aha!" She pulled out a USB port and pushed it over the table at me. I assumed it was my new charge's file - name, address, family history, previous writings (if there were any) and plenty of storage space for all his future work under my inspiration.

"Don't tell me ... are you modernizing this, too?"

She laughed. "What did you expect, a parchment scroll?"

"Not really." I shrugged. It would be easier to carry, anyway.

Suddenly what she had said hit me like a buffet from Pegasus's wings. "Wait a minute ... did you say he'll change the future of Earth's literature?"

She threw me a stern glance, which looked strange on a teenage girl's face but made me gulp all the same. "If you inspire him right."

I panicked. I had a sudden mental image of my poet crumpling up paper after paper, staring at his notebook with increasing desperation, finally getting a nine-to-five desk job and languishing away in total obscurity. All those unwritten poems accusing me like wispy little ghosts. All those future readers who would be denied his genius, and all because of me - if I messed up.

My last poet, an anorexic college student, had left behind a bunch of un-revised outpourings that were barely worthy of publication, let alone immortality. Who was I to look after this twenty-first-century Shakespeare?

Erato must have seen the look on my face, because she patted my cheek in a disturbingly aunt-like manner.

"You'll do fine," she said. "I know you will. That's why I'm giving you the job. Anyway, you can't do much worse than last time."

I grimaced. She giggled.

"Thank you," I managed. "I ... I'll do my best. You can count on me," I added, drawing myself up, as if the words could somehow give me extra confidence.

"Cool," Erato chirped. "That's it, then. Remember, unrequited love is the best fuel. That and family drama. But don't let him kill himself or anything, at least not until he's written some immortal verse. Off you go, honey, and good luck!"

She snapped her long-nailed fingers and, in that careless way goddesses have, transported me right into the West Island Public Library to look up my poet's file.

*

Name: Marlon Keane

Internet Name: Shadowtrekkie

Date of Birth: January 5, 1993

Residence: -- Elm Street, Beaconsfield

Family: (mother) Claudia Wollmer, artisan; (father) Franklin Keane, civil engineer / married 1990; (pet) Sarek, a cat

Romantic status: virgin; never loved (for verification see Eros)

Holy Zeus! I groaned mentally, my face in my hands. I'd been landed with a teenage bourgeois whose parents were still alive and still together. Not even a sibling to fight with or a nasty cheerleader to pine for (although the latter could probably be arranged). He probably lived in a house with two storeys, two cars and a hedge, and his worst problems were being bored in class or popping zits. How was an average Muse like me supposed to dredge up timeless classics out of a life like this?

The picture, obviously a school photo, showed a round-faced teenager with short, tightly curled black hair, glasses with black rectangular frames, and very dark brown eyes, rather startling in such a pale complexion. The collar of a black T-Shirt was just visible at the bottom of the photo. He was not trying to smile, as so many young people do in photographs; as a result, he looked just as he had felt - grimly resigned to having his picture taken. It made me smile.

Favorite Writers: J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Paolini, Isaac Asimov, H. P. Lovecraft

Previous Writings: None

No poetry, I discovered with another groan. Nothing but fantasy and science fiction. I have no objection to that; in fact, I enjoy reading it myself (although if most of my colleagues knew that, they'd probably pack me off to Hades), but if he was destined to be the next Robert Frost or something, how could he do it without an example? Not that Tolkien didn't write the occasional poem ... and they weren't half bad either. At least this Marlon Keane valued imagination; it could be worse. Remembering the baker I'd had charge of in the 1700's, author of the Elegy for a Fallen Soufflé, I figured it could be much worse.

I was just about to go on reading when a mortal voice startled me. "Excuse me," he said - it was a young man. "Could I use that station when you're done?"

My wheeled chair swivelled around to face him - I must have steered it, although I can't remember using my legs. I saw him through a fog of utter bewilderment - Marlon Keane, in cargo pants and a green Che Guevara T-Shirt, looking down at me with a nervous smile that became more nervous the longer I looked.

"You can see me?" I yelped.

He laughed and ducked his head. "Uh, yeah ... shouldn't I?"

What in Hades' name did you get me into, Erato?