Authors: Earl Emerson
who's been a splendid editor
and a great friend for over twenty years
Many thanks to Lieutenant Jay Mahnke of Engine 33 and to Erik Lawyer of Ladder 3 for their technical and editorial assistance. Thanks also to Matt Hougan, also on Ladder 3, for the fire scene schematic. Thanks, as always, to my wife, Sandy, for seeing the flaws in the original manuscript and coming up with a whole new plot.
1. THE Z CLUB
CAPTAIN TREY BROWN, ENGINE 28, C SHIFT
I was seventeen the first time I stole India from my brother.
They say you never forget your first love, and I guess it's true, because even though I haven't laid eyes on her in almost two decades, I find my thoughts straying in India's direction often. But then, my life changed forever that summer, so why shouldn't my thoughts stray to that time? There were a lot of changes during the course of those months: our oldest brother dying in a car wreck, India's sister the victim of an assault that changed her life and mine forever, the dark evening I got myself blackballed out of the Carmichael family on what was essentially a hand vote.
Perhaps it is because memories of youth are so often marbled with yearning that I believed parts of our summer might one day be recovered. Memories of desire heated to the melting point dim slowly. The summer India and I cheated on my brother, I was seventeen and she had just turned eighteen. At the time I believed we were more in love than any other two people on earth. Had events turned out differently, that feeling might have eased out of my soul of its own accord instead of being jerked out like a gaffed flounder. Oddly, her last name is Carmichael now, a detail that lends more angst to my recollections than anything else.
Being excommunicated from the family was only the beginning of my troubles. At seventeen I came as close as I ever would to a jail cell, and then had the stuffing beaten out of me by two ex-pro boxers while Barry Renfrow stood by and watched. Renfrow's back now, too, which shows how circular life can be.
Though I hadn't laid eyes on India during the intervening years, I'd seen pictures of her in the newspaper: at a Mariners game sitting with the president of the ball club and his wife; a wedding photo the week after she married Stone Carmichael; and more recently, functioning as the hostess at a charity ball attended by Puget Sound's hoity-toity, the odd software billionaire sprinkled in among the five-thousand-dollar gowns and designer tuxedos. For me the photos were freeze-frame glimpses of a life I'd been banished from.
Even now I remember our last night together, the silky feel of her breasts under my touch, the ultimate tension in my loins as her thighs tightened. Oddly enough, she married into the only family on this planet who held me in lower regard than her own family did. But that's a long story. Only weeks ago Seattle suffered its most devastating fire in recent history, and the irony that disaster can reunite us just as disaster once split us apart does not elude me. Today I am a lonely man of common tastes, who wonders occasionally not whether his lost love thinks of him as frequently as he thinks of her, but whether she thinks of him at all.
This morning I debated whether or not to take the Harley to work, but in the end decided the riots would probably be over by six forty-five when I left the house. The radio reported rock throwing in the Rainier Valley, random gunshots on Beacon Hill, bricks thrown at a fire station several blocks from my home. In the nine days I'd been out of town, the public outcry over the fire had snowballed from bitch sessions to rioting. If things continued in this vein, it was only a matter of time before more deaths were added to the fourteen at the Z Clubâfifteen if you counted the witness who was murdered two blocks from the fire.
It was four weeks after the tragedy, a Friday morning, early October, and Seattle was sleepwalking through a typical fall of fog-shrouded mornings and hazy afternoons. The news said rain was moving in.
At the intersection of Martin Luther King and Jackson, a gaggle of black teenagers stood idly in the fog. I could tell from their body language that they'd been out all night, hunting up hassles and emboldening one another with tough talk and macho posturing. A small grocery store on the northwest corner revealed broken windows and graffiti streaming across the front door like cartoon captions. As I waited at the red light, one of the boys realized I was the only motorist at the intersection and threw a half-full beer bottle onto Jackson, where it burst twenty feet from my front tire. Several of them laughed, the others waiting for my reaction. I wanted to tell them that if this was a black-white revolution, perhaps they should go after a white guy instead of yours truly, but all I did was blip my throttle a couple of times and roar away when the light changed.
I'd been in a cocoon of my own making for the past nine days, having flown to Las Vegas on my annual trek with my mom and brother, my real family. I hadn't had time to catch up on all the news, but I knew the official fire department report had come out two days ago and yesterday the papers had unloaded a bombshell that made the report look like a pack of lies. Since then, all hell had broken loose. While my minor burns from the Z Club fire had healed, the community rebellion had grown worse.
This would be my first shift on Engine 28 in almost a month, and as much as I detested Las Vegas, making the trip each year specifically for my mother and brother, who couldn't get enough of it, the journey had been a respite from the angry speeches, department arm-twisting, and political diatribes prompted by the Z Club fire.
As did other papers in the country, the
Las Vegas Review-Journal
had carried daily updates on the unrest in Seattle.
sported a photo of bodies under a large tarpaulin on the sidewalk outside the Z Club, and it was because of those bodies that last Friday and Saturday night African-American youth rioted in Seattle in a manner that hadn't been seen here since the late sixties. Monday morning, almost sixteen hundred marchers, black and white, forced the mayor to stand in the rain outside the municipal building and give a conciliatory speech about knitting the community back together. So far nobody had been killed in the riots, although one police officer received a broken shoulder when some moron dropped a cinder block from a roof. Each day there had been organized marches, and later, under cover of darkness, a different set of protesters staged mini-riots, break-ins, and looting.
According to reports I heard on the radio, the vice president's visit this morning had forced the SPD to maintain an expansive presence on the streets. I was afraid my little brother Johnny, who had a penchant for lunacy and a compulsion to be part of any crowd, would get sucked into the maelstrom, so I had hoped the ruckus would have died down by the time we returned from Nevada. In fact, we had taken the Vegas trip a month early trusting in just such an eventuality. But instead of dying down, the turmoil had mushroomed.
Thirteen black civilians and one white firefighter had died at the Z Club fire. One version of the story had a mostly white fire department pouring water into the building in a cowardly style from the sidewalk while frantic young blacks tried to escape the premises without any help. Another version painted a picture of firefighters so intent on saving one of their own that they ignored relatively easy civilian rescues, leaving more than a dozen African Americans to die. If I bought into either of those scenarios, I might have been tempted to march in the streets, too.
Yesterday afternoon the mayor's office issued its official reaction to the fire department's report on the Z Club fire and to the news stories yesterday morning which supposedly debunked that report. The TV news had been filled with cautiously worded affirmations from city administrators and fire department brass juxtaposed with statements from the outraged local NAACP chapter president, from angry black ministers, from family and friends of the victims, and from more fortunate partygoers who'd escaped the Z Club that night. Melinda Burns, the lieutenant I would be relieving on Engine 28 this morning, was interviewed during one newscast, announcing rather lamely that it was “always a shame when people had to die at a fire.” From the department's perspective, the interview probably wasn't a great idea, since Melinda was white, the victims were black, and that distinction had been the number one topic of contention from the get-go.
Situated on Rainier Avenue, Station 28, my home away from home, was a stereotypical firehouse with three tall roll-up apparatus bay doors and hard tile floors throughout. Because of the institutional nature of our structure and furnishings, I often thought the building could serve as the living quarters for the staff in a state facility, most likely a nuthouse.
I shut off the Harley and rolled into the station without getting off, walking the bike quietly between the rigs to the rear of the station under the basketball hoop. It was seven
>., and most of the firefighters from yesterday's shift were just climbing out of their bunks. In half an hour, today's crews would take over and hold the fort until seven-thirty tomorrow morning: four firefighters on Ladder 12, three of us on Engine 28, and two paramedics on Medic 28.
Lieutenant Burns, who met me outside the engine officer's room, was thick through the middleâlike someone who'd been drinking beer for too many yearsâbut had been a star athlete in college: rugby and lacrosse. She was anxious about living up to department standards, even though as far as I could tell, she generally surpassed them.
“All heck's been breaking loose,” she said.
“Oh, yeah?” I left the door open a few inches while I went into the small engine officer's room, tugged off my motorcycle boots, and stepped into a freshly laundered fire department uniform I'd carried to work in my saddlebags.
“We bunked four times last night,” she said from the hallway. “Had two Dumpster fires down near Alaska. Got called to the South Precinct after they pepper-sprayed a couple of guys outside one of the holding cells. They must have had eighteen or twenty people under arrest for rioting. People are really bent out of shape over that report. Tonight might be more of the same.”
“Yeah, it's Friday.”
It was unexpected and a little sad to see the black community so angry at the fire department. Historically it was the police department that attracted our wrath, as it had not been too long ago when police officers killed a mentally unstable black man who'd held two women hostage for ten hours. Although the guy had been armed only with a kitchen knife, the police shot him seven times, which did a grand job of stirring up righteous indignation. Four months later when the Z Club fire came along, the black community was still simmering.
“By the way, Melinda. I saw you on the news. You looked good.”
“The chief called and chewed me out. They want either a chief or the PIO to be talking to the media. Nobody else.”
“There was a memo to that effect before I left. You didn't see it?”
“I did, but they stuck a microphone in my face and asked me to say something, and I just went ahead and shot my mouth off. I don't know why.”
“So what's going on around here?” I'd changed and was in the corridor, the two of us walking toward the beanery, which had begun to fill up with yawning firefighters from yesterday's shift. Somebody was grinding coffee beans in the kitchen alcove.
The kitchen, or the beanery in department parlance, was a big room suffused with the odors of aftershave, yesterday's cooking, and the residue of smoke from last night's fires. A television sat in the far corner, and a long wooden table dominated the room. One corner had two refrigerators, a range, and a sink. Rank-and-file firefighters slept in the large bunk room on the other side of the apparatus bay, while the engine and truck officers slept in the offices behind us. The medic room was sandwiched between the officers' rooms.
Except for Melinda and one incoming medic, everybody in the room was male. Two firefighters in the corner were discussing a bow-hunting trip. Other than that, all talk centered around the civil unrest. When the phone rang, I snapped it up. “Captain Brown. Station Twenty-eight.”
“Cap? This is Garrison. I'm going to be late. I-Five's a parking lot. I heard on the radio there's another protest south of the old Rainier Brewery. If it's like last week, it'll gum things up for hours.”
“I'll tell Hannity,” I said, picking up the remote off the table and switching the TV to the local news. A chopper was displaying a sky view of about a hundred fifty sign-waving marchers on Interstate 5. They had taken over all four of the northbound lanes, and the southbound lanes were stalled with gapers. “If Hannity can't stay over for you, I'm sure somebody else will.”
“All they're doing is making people mad. There's going to be like six thousand people late for work.”
“We'll cover for you.”
Winston, one of the incoming medics, had been studying the TV images and said, “Gee, I wonder how they work that? Do they call their boss and say, âI need to take a few hours of comp time so I can be on the freeway fucking up the morning for everybody else?' Or do they call in sick and scam a day off the company? Or maybe they all work the night shift? Maybe they're independent entrepreneurs and are planning to make up the lost time by working this evening. Jesus.”
The ridicule in his voice was rich with the implication that none of the black marchers had jobs, thus were able to mess up the day for hardworking white people, who did. The secondary implication was an old one I was familiar with, that the marchers didn't have jobs because they didn't want to work for a living.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” said Lieutenant Black cheerfully.
“If you ask me, the squeaky wheel should get greased,” growled Winston, making a gesture toward the TV with thumb and forefinger as if shooting someone.
“If I remember correctly, this is still America,” I said. “A guy decides to march with a sign, you don't shoot him. That's banana-republic SOP. Besides, their goal isn't to foul up commuters. It's to stall the vice president, who's landing at Boeing Field at eight o'clock. They want to disrupt
schedule so they can make the national news. I'm not saying it's right. I'm just saying they're not out to make regular people late.”