The cold rain fell heavily on the shadowed figure as he tried to run between buildings. His heart reverberated in his chest, and the pain in his side gnawed at his muscles. Nearing the end of a long, dark alley, he slowed down. He grabbed the corner of a brick building and steadied himself, hunching over as he tried to catch his breath. Gasping, his chest heaved as his lungs fought for more air. As he pulled his hand away from his ribs, blood trickled from the wound on his right side. He glanced at his hand, now dark purple in color. His shirt felt cemented to his ribs from the combination of pelting rain and coagulated blood. He looked back into the alley as far as he could. No one was following. A sense of relief washed over him, though he knew he must keep moving. He strained to see the street sign ahead through the rain. He could barely make out the words—BELLOWS LANDING.
That’s it! He carefully placed his hand over his right side again and staggered across the cobblestone street. If anyone was out on this dark, rainy night, they might have mistaken him for a drunk making his way home from McFadden’s Pub. As he lumbered forward, each step became more laborious than the previous one. He staggered and started to fall but caught himself by stretching out his hand and grabbing a black lamppost. Instantly, pain shot up his side and exploded in his brain, nearly causing him to blackout. Wrapping his arms around the slick post, he mustered all the strength in his slender frame to pull himself up.
The ten terrace houses along Bellows Landing were identical in shape and size, differing only by the secrets kept inside. Most inhabitants in the small town of Armahn, population 989, were as close as the row houses. They were hardworking, God–fearing citizens in this small hamlet where generations grew up, worked, married, and died. Many worked at St. Vincent’s Distillery or at Whitehead Linen Factory, while others drove up the coast to work at the Antrim Shipyard.
Nestled on Ireland’s northeastern coast, Armahn’s idyllic location had been hidden from poets and warriors for centuries. Seldom was notice received from the outside world, and the Troubles of Northern Ireland were rarely felt here. However, the blue blood of England’s sordid past ran cold in the hearts of the older populous of Armahn. The newer generation of Celts had little personal experience with the bloodshed and animosity found in this part of the world. All they knew were the stories seared into their souls from the blistered hearts of their parents and grandparents.
Twenty-year-old Ronan McNeilly was one of those young souls. He lived with his mother, Hannah, and his fourteen-year-old sister, Rachel, toward the end of the terrace houses on Bellows Landing, number 68. His father, James, had died years earlier in a car accident. A young girl texting her boyfriend hit James head-on. Both died instantly. Ronan refused to become bitter after his father’s death. He secretly missed him but wouldn’t let anyone know how deeply he felt the pain—he hid it well. Now, as a young man, he was known in the community as levelheaded, hardworking, and one of Northern Ireland’s greatest college rugby players. Sports commentators compared his speed and athleticism to Christian Cullen and his brute strength to Jonah Lomu.
Almost every international rugby team fought for a contract with the phenom from Armahn. But rumor had it he would either accept an invitation to attend the National Olympic Rugby Camp or sign with the Belfast Royals. Although the town buzzed with the news of their hometown boy on the verge of international fame, such was bittersweet for Ronan. As much as he desired to do so, life in professional or Olympic sports would take him away from his mother and sister. A deep secret lay hidden in the recesses of his soul, locking away his dream forever. Hannah pleaded with him to reconsider, but she knew her son and his caring nature all too well. Ronan was his mother’s son. He exhibited all the same common-sense characteristics she demonstrated. However, he secretly repressed a desire for adventure, a strong characteristic he’d inherited from his father.
News travels fast in small communities, and Armahn was no exception. When Tim Pennybrook received word Ronan had turned down all offers for an athletic career, he quickly offered him a job at the Whitehead Linen Factory, which Ronan accepted. Tim also served as an elder for Armahn Fellowship Church where Hannah, Ronan, and Rachel were members. He had known James McNeilly for many years and knew him to be a kind and hardworking man as well as a loving father and husband. Tim’s son, Aidan, was a close friend of Ronan’s, and knowing his character, was keenly aware that if he didn’t recruit Ronan, someone from the distillery or shipyard would.
After graduation, Ronan’s friends, including Aidan, were scattering to different parts of Ireland and the world. Though he, too, longed for excitement, adventure, and new scenery, he was sure the extra income would provide great relief for his mother.
As Clive Wyman let go of the lamppost, he felt a small surge of adrenaline shoot through his body. Step by step, he fought to stay upright. “Seven, three,” he mouthed to himself. As he turned the corner and limped toward 73 Bellows Landing, he sensed someone behind him. He turned just in time to see a fist hurtling through the air, landing hard on his jaw and knocking him to the wet concrete.
“No!” he screamed. He felt a jolt shoot through his arm as he was yanked to his feet. In one swift motion, his body spun around, and he felt himself fall into the crook of the man’s elbows.
“No! It’s the Devil group!” His face contorted in horror as he was dragged around the corner into the dark shadows of the park. Porch lights snapped on up and down the street. A quick pop-pop was heard, and Clive’s voice was extinguished forever.
Denny McMahon was standing outside in his backyard taking the last draw from his cig when he heard the gunshots. He darted through his house and into the street toward the shots. To gaze at his large six-foot frame, one would think he could pursue this vigilante and overpower him with little effort. However, his slippers didn’t offer much traction as he tried to run to the corner.
“Call the police!” he yelled over his shoulder to his wife, Sheila, who had already started dialing.
“Kids, get back in the house!” Sheila yelled at Louie and Louise, her nine-year-old twins, who were watching their father run down the street in his boxers and bathrobe.
Approaching the corner, Denny could see a trail of blood smeared on the sidewalk extending for ten feet before it rounded the corner. He slowed down and walked with a growing uneasiness to the intersection of Bellows Landing and Derry Street. Cautiously, he peeked around the corner. A man lay motionless. The left side of his face was to the ground, arms mangled at his sides, and legs crisscrossed over each other. He looked like a bloody rag doll that had been thrown down on the ground by a bratty six-year-old. Denny could see at least one bullet hole in the side of the man’s head, but he dared not go any closer.
Suddenly, the sound of a single siren pierced the night air.