Ceese Tucker heard about it from his mother, who got it from Ura Lee Smitcher, who was about out of her mind she was so angry and worried about that motorcycle mama giving rides to her boy Mack. "Corrupting a minor is still a crime in this state," said Ceese's mama as he ate his supper.
"That's what I told Ura Lee and that's what I'm telling you. Now you go arrest that woman."
"Mama," said Ceese, "I'm eating."
"Oh, so you intend to be one of those fat cops with your belly hanging down over your belt.
One of those cops that watches criminals do whatever they want but he too fat and lazy to do anything."
"Mama, giving a ride to a seventeen-year-old boy who's late for school is not going to get that woman convicted of anything in any court, and if I arrested her it would make me look like an idiot and I'm still on probation, so all that would happen is I might get dropped from the LAPD and your motorcycle mama would still be at large."
"Ain't that just like the law. Never does a thing to help black people."
"Just think about it for a minute, Mama."
"You saying I don't think less you tell me to?"
"Mama, if a white cop came and arrested a black woman for giving a ride to a high school boy, you'd be first in line to call that racial profiling or harassment or some such thing."
"You ain't a white cop," said Mama.
"The law's the law," said Ceese. "And my job is one I want to keep."
"I remember my daddy telling me," said Mama, "that back in the South, somebody got out of line, he come home and find his house on fire or burned right down to the ground. That generally worked to give him the idea his neighbors wanted him to move out."
"Now that is a crime, Mama, and a serious one. Burning somebody's house down. I hope I never hear you or anybody else in this neighborhood talking like that. Because now if something did happen to her house, I'd be obstructing justice not to tell them what you said."
"It didn't turn me white, it turned me into a cop. I'm a good cop, Mama, and that means I don't just go arresting somebody because their neighbors don't like her. And it also means that when a real crime is committed, I will see to it that the perpetrators are arrested and tried."
"So having you here makes that hoochie mama safe to prey on the young boys of our neighborhood and makes it unsafe for us to do a single thing about it."
"That's right, Mama. Now you got somebody to blame—me. Feel better?"
"I'm just sorry I fixed you supper. Breakfast tomorrow I ought to make you eat cold cornflakes.
Ought to make you sit on the back porch to eat them."
"Mama, I love you, but you worry me sometimes."
Ceese was worried about more than Mama threatening not to fix him a good breakfast. No shortage of fast-food places with good egg-and-biscuit breakfasts before he had to eat cornflakes.
And come to think of it, cornflakes weren't bad, either.
What worried him was a woman on a motorcycle taking special note of Mack Street. The memories came flooding back, of that woman in black leather and a motorcycle helmet who stood there on the landing of the stairs in the hospital and urged him—no, made him want—to throw baby Mack down and end his life on the concrete at the bottom.
She wanted him dead, and now she's giving him rides on a very dangerous machine. Without a helmet.
If it's the same woman.
How could it be? That was seventeen years ago. Nobody would call her a young woman now, the way they were all talking about Yolanda White.
Lots of people ride motorcycles. Lots of women, for that matter.
That other woman, though, she knew Mr. Christmas or Bag Man or Puck or whatever his name is. Which means she's probably just like him. A fairy. An immortal. In which case she could look as young as ever, even after seventeen years. Could be the same woman. Might not be, but could be.
Which is why Ceese got up from the supper table, rinsed his dishes, put them in the dishwasher, added the soap, started it up, then strapped on his gun and headed out the door to walk up the street.
It occurred to him that this might be more convincing if he arrived in a patrol car.
Then it occurred to him that if this was an ordinary woman who just moved into a neighborhood that didn't appreciate her, there really wasn't much point to the visit. And if this Yolanda was actually a fairy like Puck, he was in serious danger of getting turned upside down or inside out or something without her lifting a finger.
Maybe she wasn't as powerful as he feared.
Still, he couldn't help but wish that this confrontation was happening in Fairyland, where he was very, very large, and fairies were very, very little.
Ceese walked up the hill, remembering seventeen years before when he walked up this same street with Raymo, carrying a skateboard under his arm and fake weed in his pocket. He had seen enough weed since then to know that they'd been scammed. Finding the baby probably saved him from smoking something poisonous or at least sickening. And it occurred to him right then: Did Raymo know it was fake? Was he setting Ceese up to be humiliated? Look what I got Ceese to smoke!
Well, it didn't work. Ceese was a cop now. And Raymo was... somewhere. Doing something.
His family moved out before he got out of high school. Moved north somewhere. Central Valley.
Raymo was probably the biggest hood in a small town. Well, that was all right. In LA, Raymo would have had plenty of really evil guys to imitate; in a more innocent town, he'd be limited by the evil he was able to think up for himself.
Trouble was, Raymo was kind of a creative guy.
And what if he didn't stay in Fresno or Milpitas or wherever the hell he was? After high school, why would he stay? What if he came back to LA and found himself a spot in South Central or Compton? Would there come a day when Ceese came face to face with Raymo again, only this time he's a cop with a gun and the law on his side, and Raymo is...
Not the same dumb malicious kid he was, that's for sure. Something more. Something worse.
If my life was touched by whatever power brought Mack and these fairies into our life, why wasn't Raymo touched? Or was he?
Ceese was standing in front of the Phelps house. Where Yolanda White lived. There were some lights on, but what did that mean? Garage door was closed so he couldn't tell if the bike was there or not.
Why was he afraid? He was a cop, but he was also a neighbor. He wished he hadn't strapped on his gun.
He passed through the low gate and walked to the front door and rang the doorbell. Still had the chimes that Mrs. Phelps liked so much. Longest door chiming in Baldwin Hills. And she'd never answer the door till they finished chiming.
Yolanda White apparently had no such qualms. The door was open less than halfway through the complicated melody. "Oh, good heavens," she said—not exactly the expletive he expected her to use. "A policeman at my door. What is it, the noise of the motorcycle or a charge that I was speeding? Or are you just here on a neighborly visit?"
"Miz Yolanda? Am I that old and still single?" She held the door wider so he could come in.
"Miz White, then," he said as he entered.
She asked him to sit, and when he did, on a big white furry polar bear of a couch, she sat down across from him on an ebony cube. "So," she said. "Let me guess. My bike is noisy, I drive too fast, I dress too sexy, and the Welcome Wagon wears a gun."
"Just got off work," said Ceese. "Cecil Tucker's my name. Everybody calls me Ceese."
"As in 'cease and desist'? You should have grown up to be a lawyer, not a cop. You got a brother named Nolo Contendere? What about Sic Transit Gloria Mundi?"
"I don't speak Spanish," said Ceese. "And I don't know any Gloria."
"So you're the one they chose to come tell me what they been hinting about since I got here."
"No, ma'am," said Ceese. "I suppose I chose myself."
"So what are you? Neighborhood watch? LAPD? Or you wanting to take me dancing?"
"I wanted to meet you is all. No dancing."
"Got something against dancing?"
"I don't dance."
"Two left feet? Got no rhythm? Or just never found anybody who'd dance with you?"
"I see I'm out of my league here," said Ceese. "I just can't think as fast as you talk."
"My problem, Officer Cease and Desist, is that I never once found a man who could."
"You're a fast talker."
"There was one, a long time ago. With him, when we were together I didn't want him thinking and he didn't want me talking."
"I'm glad to know you have happy erotic memories," said Ceese.
"Wo, now, that was a fine speech. They teach you that in cop school?"
"The word 'erotic' comes up now and then."
The challenge in her voice, her words, her posture, woke a memory in him. Was that how the woman in the black helmet and black leather had stood, looking up at him from the landing on the hospital stairs? Was that how she stood when she was talking to Bag Man on the street?
At that moment the doorbell rang, startling Ceese and making Yolanda laugh. "Now here's the guest I was looking for."
She strode to the door, flung it open, and there stood Mack Street.
Mack looked from Yolanda to Ceese and back to Yolanda.
"Why, it's that nice boy I gave a ride to school," said Yolanda.
Mack grinned. "I didn't know you knew each other."
"Step away from the door," said Ceese.
He was pointing his gun at her.
"Is that loaded?" she said.
"Mack, go home. Now. Get out of here."
"Are you crazy?" asked Mack. "She wasn't doing anything."
"I wasn't doing anything," said Yolanda.
"You called him here," said Ceese. "You made him come."
"She did not," said Mack.
"I'm just an unforgettable woman, Mr. Cop," said Yolanda.
"I came to tell her about how they planning to sue her," said Mack. "I think that's wrong."
"Get the hell out of here, Mack," said Ceese intensely. "She's got you under her control."
But Mack was rooted to the spot. "Ceese, you lost your mind?"
"I guess he's the jealous type," said Yolanda. "And we haven't even dated yet."
"I know you," Ceese said to her.
"That line might work in bars, but not in my living room."
"Well, what can I say? I'm kind of memorable, and you just ain't." Yolanda grinned. "What I do that makes you want to shoot me?"
"I was twelve. I was holding a baby."
"No sir, doesn't stir a memory," said Yolanda. "Besides which, if you was twelve then, I must have been about nine."
"You were exactly the age you are now," said Ceese.
"Then it wasn't me."
"You couldn't make me do it then," said Ceese. "So you come back to do it yourself?"
"Do what?" asked Mack.
"Kill you," said Ceese.
"She can't kill me," said Mack.
"Why not?" asked Ceese.
"I'm her hero."
Mack said the words with such simplicity and truth that it made Ceese lower his weapon a little.
"You are?" asked Yolanda. "I always wanted one."
"Your dream," said Mack. "When the flying slug—the dragon, whatever it is—when it comes to kill you, I'm the one who fights it."
"Well, I'll be damned," she said. "And here I thought it was just my dog."
Mack looked disappointed. "You have a dog?"
She shook her head. "Always meant to get one though."
"What are you talking about?" asked Ceese.
"Ceese, you know I see dreams," said Mack. "But I was in her dream."
"Mack, she tried to make me kill you. When you were a baby. The day I found you. She stood there and looked at me and all I wanted to do was kill you."
"I don't know why," said Ceese. "I just know that it took all the strength I had to keep from doing it. And I'm not going to let her kill you now."
Yolanda laughed. "You poor stupid sumbitch, don't you get it yet?"
And with those words, Ceese felt an overwhelming need to turn and point the gun at Mack.
"God help me," whispered Ceese. But he knew with all his heart that he was going to kill Mack.
The person he loved best in all the world. There was his finger on the trigger. The gun pointed straight at Mack's heart.
"God doesn't sweat the small stuff," said Yolanda. "He ain't going to interfere."
"Like you'd know," said Ceese. He was sweating from the effort of not pulling the trigger.
"Ceese, please put down that gun," said Mack.
"Just get out of here," Ceese said between clenched teeth.
"Yolanda," said Mack. "Let go of him. Please."
"He the one with the gun," said Yolanda.
"Titania," said Mack, in a louder voice. "Let him go."
She laughed. "You silly boy, do you think I ever told Will Shakespeare my real name?"
"Mab," said Mack. "Don't do this to him."
"Those things are dangerous. You never know where they'll be pointing when they go off."
"He couldn't have hurt you," said Mack. "Your soul is in a glass jar in a clearing with a panther watching over it."
When the compulsion left Ceese it felt like somebody removed a wall he'd been leaning against.
He stumbled and fell to one knee.
"Bend yo' knee, bow yo' head," said Yolanda. "Tote that barge until yo' dead."
"Mack," whispered Ceese. "I'm sorry."
"Why don't you boys just both sit down on the couch and tell me why you come to see me,
'stead of messing around with guns and shit."
Ceese wanted to plunge out that front door and run home. Or farther. As far as he could go to get the sense of helplessness off him. It clung to him like the stink of skunk.
So he found himself sitting on the shaggy white couch, Mack beside him, his gun still lying on the floor where he'd dropped it.
"I came to warn you," said Mack. "About the neighbors. They plan to use the law on you. Cause your house's deed got a clause in it—"
"Sandy Claus?" asked Yolanda brightly.
"Anyway, that's cause I didn't know who you were. Till you made him point the gun at me. Then I knew."
"You knew less than you think," said Yolanda. She turned to Ceese. "And you, did you come to kill me?"
"I had to know if it was you. The same one."
"You're very strong," said Yolanda. "Twice now, you told me no. Nobody tells me no."
"You can't kill Mack Street," said Ceese.
"Oh, you silly boy," she said. "That was then, this is now. I don't want him dead now. Back then he was still new, just a little wad of evil that my husband squirted out into the world. I was cleaning up. Only you wouldn't do it, Cecil Tucker. And now Mack's grown up into something else. Not just a changeling anymore."
"What's going on?" asked Mack. "Why did I suddenly dream your dream?"
"Because I came into your neighborhood," said Yolanda. "Because I needed a hero. Because nobody around here can wish for anything without it showing up in your dreams."
"Because you the Keeper of Dreams," said Yolanda. "You the Guardian of Wishes. Deep desire, it flows to you. From the moment you popped out of that chimney up there, all the desires around you, they got channeled. They flowed. Right to you, into you, all the power of all the wishing of your whole neighborhood."
"Why?" demanded Mack again.
"So he can worm his way back into the world."
"Who?" asked Ceese.
"My husband," said Yolanda. "The one Will Shakespeare knew as Oberon. Or as he likes to think of himself, the Master of the Universe." She laughed bitterly. "He was cruel, my husband. Not like Puck—not just playful. He was tired of flirting with the human race, he said. He was going to make an end of you and start over with some other kind of creature. One that wouldn't keep fighting him. And I didn't want to. I like humans. And Puck, he doesn't so much like you as like playing with you, but I was able to persuade him to help me."
"Bind the old devil deep inside the earth," said Yolanda. "It took the two of us and a great circle of fairies. We danced on Stonehenge and I called out his name. Because he told me his name, you see."
"What is it?" Mack quickly asked.
"Don't even ask that," said Yolanda. "That's his desire, talking through you. If you say his true name, then he can come out. You're his key, don't you see? All the power of these hundreds of humans is stored up in you, except whatever got bled off to grant their foolish wishes. You've been strong for him, I can see it. You've been keeping it in, not letting any of it out for a long time. But now he wants it out, and he'll have it. If he could get you to say his name, then it would be easier. He could rise up out of the earth himself and no one could stop him then. He'd be like in the ancient days when our kind first came to earth and we all had the shape he's never given up. The first thing he'd do, Mack Street, is swallow you whole, so all that stored-up power was inside him."
"And you're here to stop him?" asked Ceese.
"I'm not here," she said. "That's what Mack understands and you don't. I'm trapped in a jar in a clearing, guarded by a panther, and so is Puck. When we bound Oberon, when he was writhing on the ground in the middle of the henge, when he was sinking down into the earth and it was swallowing him up to hold him captive so he couldn't destroy the human race, he still had his power over Puck.
Once a slave to the king of the fairies, then you're never really free. He can't be trusted, poor Puck, because he's bound by my husband's will. So at the last moment, the old worm tore the light out of us and put it in two jars and hung them like lanterns in a faraway place where he thought we'd never find it."
She sighed. "It took us all these years. Nearly four hundred years. And yet we couldn't get to where he held us captive. Because we could only control bodies in this world. Until you were born, Mack, if you want to call it that, all we could do was petty magicks. Bending humans to our will. Puck didn't mind—it amused him—but I was tired of using castoff bodies and it didn't amuse me to torment the others who still had a firm grip on theirs. We hung around here, but we went our separate ways.
Until we felt it. The surge of power. The darkness like a sudden blast of licorice. Of anise. We knew he had found a passageway that let him push something of himself out into the world. Puck found the way to you first—of course he would, he's still bound to Oberon and such binding works both ways, Oberon can't stir without Puck feeling it. I'm bound, too, but only as a wife. So you were already born when I arrived. Born and put in that shopping bag and taken back to the spout through which the old worm reaches into this world."
"There's no way that Mack is something evil," said Ceese, finally making some sense of what she was saying.
"Is a hammer a good carpenter or a bad one?" asked Yolanda. "The answer is, it's no carpenter at all, and the good or bad of the hammer depends on how the carpenter uses it."
"He's a tool when Oberon says he is. He'll have the use of him when he wants."
"He's the worm in your dream," Mack said. "The slug with wings. The one I fight."
"I don't know how twisted up that dream gets, but Mack, when you go to the worm, it's not to fight him. It's to be swallowed. It's to bring the power of these people into him. Nourish him. Make him mighty again."
"No way," said Mack. "I won't do it."
"You're not like Ceese here. I think maybe Ceese could tell him no. But you could no more deny him than your finger could refuse to pick your nose. May not like the work, but it can't say no."
"You saying Mack's not really human?" Ceese asked.
"Mack is what he is. Once you turn magic loose in the world, it becomes what it becomes. I don't know how reliable a tool he'll be. And you can count on this—Oberon hasn't been waiting all this time just to have everything depend on a changeling who's been under the daily influence of a human as strong as you, Cecil Tucker."
"So what does that mean?" asked Mack. "What am I supposed to do?"
"You're not supposed to do anything," said Ceese. "Do you think you can trust this woman?
She's out for herself."
"Well, of course I am," said Yolanda. "But it so happens that what I want—to keep Oberon penned up in hell, or whatever you want to call it—will make life a lot better for you mortals.
Especially the ones in this neighborhood, who have already been collected."
"Collected?" asked Ceese.
"Mack here has been collecting them all for years," said Yolanda.
Mack looked stunned. "I have?"
"Every dream you saw that came from someone else, you've got their will tied up in yours. What do you think Oberon will be eating, when he swallows you? You're nothing—you're just a piece of him. It's what you collected for him that counts. He's been working through you ever since you were born."
Mack leapt to his feet. "I haven't been. I've been cutting out of those dreams. After what it did to Deacon Landry and Tamika Brown and... I been getting out of those dreams."
"You've been stopping up those dreams," said Yolanda cheerfully. "Like putting a cork in them.
Penning them in. Putting the genie into the bottle. All those deep and powerful desires, all the wishes of their heart, locked up inside you, ready for Oberon to start using all that magic."
"It's all locked up in a jar in the woods," said Yolanda.
"And Puck's in the other lantern. How come he can do things?"
"All we have is enough power to influence the desires of mortals. Puck's using your power, not his own. And only because he wants him to." She laughed, but it was a sad laugh. "If I could ever get free of that jar, you'd see what power is. After all, I beat him once. My servants and I."
"So where are they now?"
"Weak," she said. "Lost. Alone. And mostly still in England. They have to hide. I draw power from them, they draw power from me. Be glad, though—his servants are also weakened. Like Puck."
"So Puck is an enemy," said Mack.
"Puck is... Puck. He loves me. I thought you knew that much. He loves me, but he's Oberon's slave. So he can only help me obliquely. Sideways. He can't actually disobey anything Oberon thought to command him to do. That's why he couldn't tell you flat out who I am, or even who he is."
"I thought he was just a lying snake."
"Well, he is. But he's a lying snake who loves me, and a lying snake who would rather have his power trapped in a jar in a clearing in the woods of Fairyland than have Oberon raging through the world, sending him on cruel errands—especially errands to torment me."
"And I'm Oberon's slave, too," said Mack.
"Well, no," said Yolanda. "You're part of him. More like Oberon's goiter. But a cute one."
Ceese could see how this devastated Mack—especially the way Yolanda seemed not even to notice how hurtful her words were. Or maybe she just didn't care about humans' feelings. "Mack, you don't have to believe this."
"But it's true," said Mack. "It's what I felt all along. That I never belonged to myself. I thought I belonged—to you, to Miz Smitcher, to the neighborhood. But now I know what I been searching for all these years, all my life—it was him. It was the rest of me. He's the one driving. He's the one carrying me along into the flood."
"What are you talking about?" asked Ceese.
"Oh, he'll get used to it," said Yolanda.
"Used to it? Finding out he isn't even real?"
"Oh, he's real," said Yolanda. "Real as real can be. Which is why I tried to get you to kill Mack when he was a baby. Only thing I wasn't sure about was—when you didn't kill him, when you resisted me, was it because of your own strength? Or because of Oberon's power stopping you? If it was that worm doing it, then it meant he was watching closer than I thought he could. But now, I'm pretty sure it's just you. I'm pretty sure he's still blind up here. He can sense the power. He can taste the dreams.
He can find dark and power-craving hearts that are looking for him. But he can't really see. It's like searching for clothes in the back of the closet."
"That's what I'm here to figure out," said Yolanda.
"Great," said Mack. "But what am I here for?"
"For Oberon to use you," she said.
"So everything would be better if I was dead."
"That's the thing," said Yolanda. "You're part of him. So you're immortal. Can't kill you. We stuck with you here, Mack Street." She grinned. "But you can call me Yo Yo if you want."
Mack looked downright grateful. But only for a moment. Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped to the ground.
Ceese was kneeling by him in a moment, supporting his head. "What did you do to him?" he demanded of Yolanda.
"Haven't you heard a thing I said?" she answered. "All that power stored up inside him—Oberon's using it. The boy'll wake up when it's done."