A Star to Steer By: Prologue

Her own home lay two streets away. She could reach it in as many minutes if the escape route through the back court of the building in which she was sheltering hadn’t been blocked by two members of the Rafferty clan. Trouble in Temple on a Saturday night and the Raffertys involved? What a surprise.

The family formed the rotten core of one of the notorious local gangs: the Bruce Street Boys. Shoulder to shoulder like sentries on watch, the two men stood with their legs apart, completely filling the building’s rear exit. They exuded an air of chilling and watchful menace: like cats waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting rat.

Ellie had been playing with a group of girls much younger than herself, holding one end of a long skipping rope while they took it in turns to jump through it. At the first sight and sound of trouble their mothers had swept down into the cobbled street, scooping up their offspring and retreating to the safety of their homes. Around and above Ellie’s head a succession of deafening bangs indicated that solid wooden doors were being flung shut. Neither the most persistent knocking nor the most frantic of pleas would get those defensive barriers opened again. Not till it was all over.

One of the men standing a few feet away from her pushed back his dark jacket, hooking his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets. Each held a cut-throat razor. The man had himself been on the receiving end of punishment with such weapons on some previous occasion. Following the curve of his chin, a deep and ragged line stretched from below his ear lobe to the side of his mouth. It was a well-known fact that exasperated casualty surgeons at Glasgow’s hospitals saw little need to do fine stitching on patients who had brought their injuries upon themselves. Men like this one bore the resulting scars as a badge of pride.

His companion upended the beer he held, pouring the foaming brown liquid over the stone floor of the close. Adjusting his grip, he took the bottle by the neck and smashed it against the wall of the passageway. As he lifted his hand and surveyed the deadly spears of jagged glass, a chilling gleam of pleasure stole into his eyes.

Try as she might, Ellie couldn’t suppress a whimper of fear. Two pairs of eyes travelled to where she stood doing her best to disappear into the wall. She saw them rest briefly on her dishevelled auburn waves.

‘Alan Douglas’s girl?’ asked the man with the marked face. She knew who he was. His son Frank was her friend.

‘A-a-aye,’ she stuttered.

‘Well,’ observed Francis Rafferty senior, ‘your daddy might be a God-cursed Protestant but I’d have to admit he was a good man in a fight in his day.’ He sounded like someone extending polite compliments on a sporting achievement.

A barrage of shouting and yelling rushed in from the street outside. Amidst the cacophony of foul language, insults and challenges Ellie picked out a familiar war cry. Sworn enemies of Catholics in general and the Rafferty family in particular, the Wallace Street Warriors had joined the fray.

Swivelling her head towards the noise, she saw one man lose his footing and fall onto the roadway, his arms flailing out in a fruitless attempt to save himself. Four other men shouted in triumph, arranged themselves around his body and began administering a savage kicking.

The man with the broken beer bottle growled, ‘That’s our Gerry down!’

‘Sure, and won’t we be repaying the compliment in two minutes flat? We’ll be able to give the black-hearted sons of bitches a much better battering if we can entice them in here.’

Francis Rafferty broke off from his discussion on tactics long enough to wave Ellie over, standing back to allow her the space to walk through between himself and the other man. ‘On your way, pet. My brother and I have some business to attend to here but there’s no need for innocent bystanders like yourself to get hurt.’ The awful scar creased grotesquely as he grinned at her.

Ellie sped out into the back court and past the dog-fouled square of grass the tenants of this building called a drying green.

Like an arrow seeking its target, a question whizzed through the close behind her. ‘Would there be any Fenian bastards in there?’

Frank’s uncle roared out a reply. ‘Sure, and why don’t you bold lads come in here and find out?’

She didn’t wait to hear any more, swinging breathlessly into the muddy and uneven lane that snaked between the two high and long rows of grey stone tenements. She was forced to skid to an abrupt and ungainly halt before she had gone twenty yards along it. Men and boys were coming through the closes on either side, running battles erupting all around her.

She took a hasty step back to avoid being struck by a young man retreating rapidly in front of two others. Cold steel flashed. There was an unearthly scream of pain and the lad fell backwards at her feet. Red and sticky, blood oozed up over his ripped face. As Ellie stared down at him in horror, a hand gripped her elbow – and pulled hard.


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