"You know what you need to do, right?" he said.
He was tall. Thin. Needed a haircut. Had the look of the professional student, more at ease with libraries than with ladies. But he’d just admitted to murdering one. And it didn’t seem to bother him one bit.
I jabbed him in the shoulder -- hard. "Sit down."
He sat behind a desk piled with books. Bradbury. Gaiman. Gibson. Others I didn’t recognize.
"You keep your trap shut, kid. You have the right to remain silent --"
"Calliope, detective. That was her name. They aren’t like us. You know that, right? Tell me, do you still work on it?"
I upped the volume: "-- can and will be used against you --"
"You wrote every day at the beginning, right? But then she went away and took the words with her. You look at it sometimes. But you’ve stopped working on it."
My voice quavered like a California fault line. "If you cannot … cannot afford an attorney, one will be --"
"It’s a novel, right? A great American novel, nods to Hemmingway and Steinbeck left and right. But she left and took the words and breadth of it broke your will."
My mouth snapped shut. He didn’t have it, not exactly. But he was close enough. "Poetry. Lyric verse. Heroic couplets."
He looked sad, then, as though considering some tragedy far greater than either of us. "Euterpe. Right." He sighed. "They’ve been at this a long time. A very long time. They love to keep you right at their heels, fawning over the scraps they throw out." He began to mess with papers, then, seeing I was still standing there, said, "What? I already told you. You know what you need to do."
"But … I don’t … don’t know where. I’ve tried --"
"It’ll be different," he snapped, thrusting a yellow legal pad at me, "if you use this. Go someplace where the desperate congregate. Coffeehouses are good. Then write. Move the pen across the page. Don’t stop. She’ll show up when you don’t need her." His face softened. "It’ll work, detective. Happy New Year."
I took the pad without looking at him, stepped through the door and out into the cold. The wind came in cold off the eastern plains, cutting through my coat like a razor. His farewell felt doubly wrong. Years were never new, just old worries and woes coming around all over again. And when it came, it wouldn’t be happy. She had left and she had the words.
Got in the unmarked. Drove south down the corridor to a mom-and-pop place that was open late and had atmosphere and other writers. A place I’d gone to look for her so many times before. When I got there, the weight of memory fell on me. I couldn’t go in. Besides the owner, there were three others inside, sipping coffee, staring at their pads or laptops. Every once in a while, one would start scribbling up a storm -- then stop. Take his head in his hands. Order another cup. Stare some more.
I took out my own pad. I tried to write. Nothing. Filled a page with nonsense, tore it, crumpled it, tried again. Worse this time. Tore, crumpled, repeated the whole thing. Repeated it again. And again. All my rhymes came out forced, my meter irregular, my ideas insipid. Despair began its familiar refrain: You really aren’t cut out for this. You never were. Best to accept it. I pushed it down, tore, crumpled. Paper littered the floor of the unmarked. I was down to the final blank pages. I swiped angrily at my eyes, scribbled a couple lines and rolled down my window to heave it all out onto the pavement. But something made me stop. Something made me look at the pad and read what I had written.
It was a couplet, there at the bottom. A simple thing. But it wasn’t bad. And I had done it without her.
The laugh shot out of me like steam from a kettle, billowing out into the unmarked, through the open window and into the street. She didn’t have the words, not all of them. My eye caught the dashboard clock -- 12:07. Well. Maybe this year would be happy.
Then, I saw her.
The fire-blaze hair. The electric-blue eyes. She was unmistakable. She was in the coffeehouse. Flitting back and forth between them, whispering in their ears and darting away just as they started jotting something worthwhile down. She smirked at them, just as I knew she’d smirked at me once. How long had her kind been doing this, convincing us we needed them? A long time, he’d said. A very long time.
I reached under my seat and pulled the hideaway piece I kept hidden there, the one with the serial numbers filed off. The chill steel burned in my hand. I slipped it into my pocket. The shop would close soon enough. All I had to do was wait.
Maybe, I thought, watching the ancient con that was playing out inside, this year would be new, too.