Ann Phillips stood in the middle of the tiny asphalt playground and blew her silver whistle. Its effect was immediate. Balls were dropped, cries were cut short, jump ropes were discarded. Every second grader in the yard turned and ran pell-mell to line up at the fence in front of Ann. That was because it was Monday, and whoever was first in line on Monday got to pick the book for the week.
The subject of snack-time reading was taken very seriously in Miss Phillips’s classroom.
Especially by Davin McTeer.
Ann had expected the little boy to be first. He was always first. A little faster, a little stronger, a little quicker witted than the other children. Because he was a gracious winner on the playground, a helpful participant in the classroom, and always picked the book that everyone else wanted to read anyway, no one much minded.
And Davin McTeer loved story hour. He always sat at the foot of Ann’s chair, listening rapt, asking her to repeat the best parts, using words and terms far beyond the usual vocabulary of a second grader. Ann doubted any other student in her scrappy little Charlestown elementary school knew what a simile was, and that few if any second graders across the water in privileged Boston did either.
Normally Davin was like a small rocket on the playground, fizzing back and forth across the blacktop, but today at recess he had sat companionably with Moira Kenny, whose broken ankle had sidelined her from all the playground fun. Ann had not thought much about Davin’s unusually subdued manner, until now.
He was standing at the back of the line, hands balled up tight inside the cuffs of his long sleeves. The early autumn day wasn’t really cool enough for fleece, but he had his Bruins hoodie zipped up tight. At the beginning of recess she’d asked him if he wanted to take it off, but he’d refused with something akin to horror and avoided her for the duration of the break.
At the front of the line Sally O’Dwyer jumped up and down. “I’m first! I’m first!” she said, black ponytail bobbing in time. “I get to pick the book!”
“Indeed, you do,” confirmed Ann.
At the back of the line, Davin bit his lip, as though on the verge of tears. Whatever was bothering him, it was enough to interfere with his love of story hour, and that meant it was time for Ann to intervene.
“I get to pick! I get to pick!” chanted Sally.
“You not only get to pick,” said Ann, “you get to lead the class inside.”
Sally squealed in delight and took to her role with the enthusiasm of a budding dictator. Ann watched her little charges follow Sally into the old redbrick building and then fell into step beside Davin.
“How’s it going, kiddo?” she asked.
“Fine,” said Davin, without looking up. Ann couldn’t see his face, just his mop of dirty-blond hair, but his voice sounded strained and she had never known him to be monosyllabic. Normally his extensive vocabulary was on flamboyant display. Davin was never just fine. He was always splendid or amazing or stupendous.
“It’s warm today,” she said. “Would you like me to take your sweatshirt for you?”
He shook his head vigorously, hair swishing like a mop, and clutched the cuffs of his black and gold Bruins hoodie tighter, which was also peculiar, because Davin was no fan of professional sports, and she had never seen him in Bruins gear before.
The hoodie looked new. So did the rest of Davin’s clothes. Crisp, bright, expensive. Ann was aware that money was tight for most of the children in the neighborhood, understood that their parents often struggled to put food on the table. New clothes could be serious business. Ann had some notion of what that was like.
“I could put your sweatshirt in my desk, Davin, in the same drawer with the gold stars. It would be very safe there.”
He shook his head furiously again. “I’m not supposed to take it off. My father said.”
Ann didn’t miss the fear in his voice. She hadn’t known that Davin’s father was in the picture. She’d met his mother, who was barely out of her twenties. Younger than Ann, and luminously pretty, Davin’s mother always seemed either edgy or distracted—and Ann suspected that she might have a drug problem. There were grandparents, Ann remembered, and it was they who signed report cards and permission slips and attended school concerts and art shows.
“I’m sure your dad wouldn’t mind if I promised to take very good care of it,” she said.
Another shake of the head from Davin. The panic suffusing Davin’s face wasn’t normal. Neither was his coloring. He was more than flushed. She put a hand to his forehead. He was burning up. His eyes were rimmed with red. Not good. Not good at all.
They had reached the door to the classroom. Sally was holding it open, ushering her classmates inside, eager to get to the all-important bookshelf. Ann dropped into a crouch beside the little boy.
“How about we unzip you and push your sleeves up then? Do you feel okay, Davin?” She didn’t see how he possibly could.
He bit his lip, stared straight ahead.
Ann had only been teaching for two years, but she had already seen the flu sweep through the school, the nurse’s office fill with pale faces and clammy hands.
“Sally,” she said. “Pick a book you can read to the class yourself and get started. I have to take Davin to the nurse’s office. Mrs. Colby will look in on you.”
Ann propped open the door to her room and dashed down the hall to Margaret Colby’s second grade. With the doors open, Margaret could keep an eye on both classrooms while Ann walked Davin to the nurse.
It was an old school, built of red brick, floored with checkerboard linoleum and lined with beige-tiled walls. In the hush between classes, their footsteps echoed loudly off the unforgiving surfaces. Davin kept pace with her in stalwart silence.
The nurse’s office smelled like grape lollipops and the lavender soap Mrs. Hanley favored. She had a slight brogue and an old-fashioned, grandmotherly presence reinforced by her tweed skirts and pearl necklaces, though Ann doubted the woman was even a year past forty.
“What have we here, Davin McTeer?” asked Nurse Hanley. “Hopefully not another knee-skinning slide into home plate.”
Davin remained uncharacteristically quiet. Mrs. Hanley cocked a puzzled eyebrow at Ann.
“I think he has a temperature,” supplied Ann.
Mrs. Hanley felt his forehead. “No temperature,” she pronounced. “You’re just overheated, probably from this,” she said. Before Davin could protest, she unzipped his hoodie and pulled it down his arms.
Both women froze. For a moment Ann didn’t know what she was looking at. A T-shirt, she thought, the kind printed to look like tattoos. But the gray cotton of Davin’s shirt ended just below his shoulders, where the ink, sky blue and leaf green, started.
Ann’s stomach turned over. The designs were beautiful and awful at the same time. Green leaves wound down from the boy’s shoulder to just past his elbows, vivid and lifelike. Filling in the space between them were swirls and dots in bright blue. The design was still incomplete. Someone had roughed in the rest—the black outlines of more twisting foliage and scrolling lines—over Davin’s forearms, all the way down to his wrists. Beneath it the boy’s skin was red and inflamed, dotted and smeared with dried blood. Not the antiseptic work of a commercial tattoo parlor, but something far more primitive and bloody.
For a second Ann was overwhelmed by a feeling of déjà vu. As though she had seen something like these tattoos before. Then the feeling was gone, impossible to recall, and she was left with a lingering sense of loss.
“My dad said I wasn’t supposed to take my jacket off,” whispered Davin, recalling her to reality. “Not until after it’s all done.”
Ann could only imagine how painful it would be to have a single one of those detailed, almost lifelike leaves inscribed on her own skin. But dozens . . .
“Who did this, Davin?” Ann asked, her voice barely a whisper.
“My dad brought a man to the house. He’s coming back next week to finish.”
The hair on the back of her neck rose. She’d had training to deal with this. Seminars and workshops on recognizing the signs of abuse, pamphlets and refrigerator magnets listing the steps to take and the numbers to call.
None of it had prepared her for this sight. She was supposed to be asking questions, taking notes, but she was speechless.
Thank god for Mrs. Hanley. Her smile had slipped for only a second. Her wise, appraising eyes took in the boy’s red, angry arms without betraying any horror. She smiled reassuringly at Davin. “What a lovely set of temporary tattoos!” she cooed. “These are the kind that wash off in the bath, I expect. Right, Davin?”
Davin looked confused. “My dad said no more books and stories,” he poured out. “He said he didn’t want a bookworm for a son. I’ve got to be a fighter like him and Finn.”
A chill ran down Ann’s spine. Finn. She knew only one Finn in Charlestown. A crime boss with a black reputation. Their single meeting had been a harrowing experience, one that Ann wasn’t eager to repeat. She’d gone to his house, intent on finding one of her truant students. The other teachers had warned her that he was a criminal and a crime boss and had hinted at something worse—but they hadn’t told her that he was handsome and charismatic and that she’d be irresistibly drawn to him.
“Quite right,” said Mrs. Hanley. “I’m sure your father knows best.” Her brisk, efficient hands pulled his sleeves back onto his shoulders.
“What are you doing?” asked Ann. They needed to ask Davin questions, take photographs.
“Sending Davin back to class,” said Mrs. Hanley. She zipped up his hoodie smartly. “Nothing to fuss over. Now away with you.”
Davin hesitated, looking from Ann to Mrs. Hanley and back again. He’d tried so hard to keep the marks on his arms secret, but now that the cat was out of the bag, it was clear that he wanted their help. “I don’t want to be like them,” he whispered.
“Scoot!” Mrs. Hanley said.
Davin’s face fell. The hope in his eyes died. He turned and trudged from the room. The door closed slowly, hissing on its hydraulic hinge.
Ann was too shocked to say anything at first. “You can’t mean to send that boy home to his parents,” she said at last.
“Do you live in the neighborhood, Miss Phillips?”
“Then forget what you saw today. Go back to your classroom and continue doing a wonderful job with the rest of your students. There’s nothing you or I can do for Davin, with a family like that.”
Ann couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The old anger welled up, the kind that had gotten her tossed out of one foster home after another, the kind she had worked so hard to learn to control. She took a deep breath. “You heard him,” she said, careful to keep her voice even, reasonable. “The man who did that”—an image of Davin’s bloody arms swam before her eyes—“is coming back to finish the job, at his father’s request.”
“Tattoos are not a disfigurement to those people. Finn and his band of ruffians. They thought Davin was too bookish, too effete. They want to toughen him up. They’ll have no love for the teacher who made him soft and even less for anyone foolish enough to set Family Services on them. It will end badly for you and for the boy. Best for everyone if you just ignore it.”
“I can’t do that,” Ann said. “It’s my responsibility to report it. I’m liable if I don’t.”
“You’d be liable if something happened to the boy and civil authorities ever found out about it. They never find out about children like Davin. Not in this neighborhood. Not among them.”
Mrs. Hanley looked at her with undisguised disdain. “You know.”
“I know that Finn and the men who hang around his house are criminals. That doesn’t mean they’re above the law.”
“Don’t play the fool,” said Mrs. Hanley. “You’ve lived here for two years. You know they’re not just criminals. The law can’t touch the Beautiful People, but the Fair Folk can get to you, and they will. They’re like cats with a mouse. There’s no escaping them when they’ve fixed their eyes on you. Better to avoid attracting their notice.”
The Fair Folk. The Beautiful People. The Good Neighbors. The woman who lived next door to Ann left milk and honey on her porch every night, and she didn’t have a cat. Ann had asked about it the day she’d moved in, and the woman had looked at her like she was simple and said, “For them, of course.”
The Fae. Superstition and nonsense. There were rational explanations for everything that had happened the day she’d met Finn MacUmhaill. That didn’t stop the fluttering in her stomach when she thought about it.
“Child services doesn’t disclose your name when you make a report,” said Ann, trying to ground herself in the real, the tangible.
“You think those people won’t guess?” squawked Mrs. Hanley. “Who else is going to do something as foolish as to go running to Family Services with a tale of child abuse about one of them? They’ll guess it was you, or they’ll get it out of the boy. And then they’ll come for you. And you’ll never be the same after they’re through with you.”
There was some truth in what Mrs. Hanley was saying. Supernatural or not, Ann knew that Finn and his gang were dangerous. She’d learned that much the day she had gone to his house. The other teachers’ warnings hadn’t deterred Ann. She had a keen sense of right and wrong, of what was fair. And, to be honest, she had a temper, too.
Sometimes it got her into trouble.
Like last year. There had been a bright little boy in her class who’d missed school for weeks at a time with no explanation. The school administration had waved away Ann’s concerns as business as usual in Charlestown. Finn MacUmhaill had been listed as the child’s guardian, so when the principal refused to act, Ann marched right up to the front door of Finn’s magnificent brownstone, past the knot of tattooed ruffians on the steps, and demanded to see the man.
The interview had not gone well. Ann had been prepared for intimidation and threats, not seduction. She had been prepared for garish ostentation, not the elegance of his understated home. Handsome, charismatic Finn, the crime lord with the impossibly perfect physique and leonine mane, had tried to charm her. It had almost worked.
Finn had offered her whiskey, and she had liked that. Most men assumed she drank wine or cocktails and a few had expressed disapproval when they discovered that she liked whiskey neat and beer dark, as though these were somehow unfeminine preferences. He’d played her, she realized later, and she was still angry at herself for how susceptible she had been.
“I’m not afraid of Finn.” She wasn’t. Not exactly. Wary, maybe, but not frightened. And even if she was, that wouldn’t matter. Davin needed her. It was one of the reasons why she had become a teacher. For as long as she could remember, she’d felt an intense protective instinct for anyone smaller or weaker than herself.
“Then you’re a fool,” said Mrs. Hanley.
“I’m going to speak to the principal,” said Ann.
“Go ahead. She’ll tell you the same thing. There’s no winning a fight against those people. No one gets the better of Finn MacUmhaill.”
Ann’s anger and frustration fueled her through the afternoon. Davin retreated further into himself after the episode in the nurse’s office, and Ann’s heart broke when he shuffled out the door at the end of the day without a backward glance or a good-bye.
She went to see the principal then. The school secretary tried to give her an appointment for the following week. Ann wouldn’t accept it. She took a seat outside the principal’s door and settled in to wait.
It was two hours before she was called, and Ann suspected it was only because Principal Christina Foster couldn’t leave without tripping over her.
“We have to be respectful of ethnic traditions,” said Christina, who was ten years older than Mrs. Hanley but dressed ten years younger than the school nurse, favoring New England staples like khaki skirts and plaid button-downs.
“It’s illegal to tattoo a minor in Massachusetts,” Ann replied.
“If we start calling Family Services over things like tattoos, we’ll lose all our credibility. Real abuse is a lot uglier than a flaming heart that reads mother or a garden variety tramp stamp.”
“You didn’t see Davin’s arms.”
“I don’t have to. I’ve been doing this for twenty years and so has Nora Hanley. You’re overreacting.”
“I’ll leave that up to Family Services,” said Ann.
“If you make that call, I’ll make one of my own, and your report will go where it belongs, in the circular file. I can’t have you crying wolf. Not in a school like this, where there are children who really do need our help.”
It took all Ann’s self-control to nod and thank the principal for seeing her. There had been a time, when she was a teenager, when she would have thrown her chair, swept everything off the principal’s desk, broken windows, and screamed like a banshee.
She’d learned to manage that rage, to coach herself through it, to repeat soothing mantras, think peaceful thoughts, and pull herself together. It had taken years, but she’d done it, overcoming her juvenile record, winning a scholarship to a teachers’ college, and finally, after serving for a period as a classroom aide, then a substitute, she’d realized her dream and become a teacher herself.
Ann walked back to her classroom, heels clicking over the linoleum of the hallway floor, reflexively stroking the silver whistle that hung from the chain around her neck. It was her only memento of her mother, and the cool metal, shaped and etched to resemble a curled leaf, always soothed her.
She reached her empty classroom, shut the door, and used every trick she knew to get control of her raging emotions. She read from her favorite book of poems, made a list of good things she had done that day, tidied her classroom, packed her bag, touched up her makeup, and headed for the house of the only person who might be able to help Davin: Finn MacUmhaill.