A plow had buried the hydrant under five feet of snow, and it took the crew of Engine Company No. 6 nearly fifteen minutes to find it and dig it out. The first fireman up the ladder to the second-floor bedroom window laid a hand on the aluminum siding and singed his palm through his glove.
The five-year-old twins had tried to hide from the flames by crawling under a bed. The fireman who carried the little boy down the ladder wept. The body was black and smoking. The fireman who descended with the little girl had already wrapped her in a sheet. The EMTs slid the children into the back of an ambulance and fishtailed down the rutted street with lights flashing, as if there were still a reason to hurry. The sixteen-year-old babysitter looked catatonic as she watched the taillights disappear in the dark.
Battalion Chief Rosella Morelli knocked the icicles off the brim of her fire hat. Then she whacked her gloved fist against the side of the gleaming red pumper.
"You counting?" I asked.
"Makes nine major house fires in Mount Hope in three months," she said. "And five dead."
The neighborhood of Mount Hope, wedged between an old barge canal and the swanky East Side, had been nailed together before the First World War to house the city's swelling class of immigrant mill workers. Even then, decades before the mills closed and the jobs moved to South Carolina on their way to Mexico and Indonesia, it hadn't been much to look at. Now lead paint flaked from the sagging porches of tinderbox triple-deckers. Flimsy cottages, many built without garages or driveways in an age of streetcars and shoe leather, smelled of dry rot in summer and wet rot in winter. Corroding Kenmores and Frigidaires crouched in the weeds that sprouted after the city dynamited the old Nelson Aldrich Junior High, where Mr. McCready first introduced me to Ray Bradbury and John Steinbeck.
The neighborhood's straight, narrow streets, many named for varieties of trees that refused to grow there anymore, crisscrossed a gentle slope that offered occasional glimpses of downtown office towers and the marble dome of the state house. Real estate agents, fingers crossed behind their backs, called them "vistas."
Mount Hope may not have been Providence's best neighborhood, but it wasn't its worst, either. A quarter of the twenty-six hundred families proudly owned their own homes. A community crime watch had cut down on the burglaries. Only 16 percent of the toddlers had lead poisoning from all that peeling paint, darn right healthy compared to the predominantly black and Asian neighborhood of South Providence, where the figure topped 40 percent. And five dead meant business was picking up at Lugo's Mortuary, theneighborhood's biggest legal business now that Deegan's Auto Bodyhad morphed into a chop shop and Marfeo's Used Cars had givenway to a heroin dealership.
The battalion chief watched her crew aim a jet of water throughthe twins' bedroom window. "I'm getting real tired of notifyingnext of kin," she said.
"Thank God you haven't lost any of your men."
She turned from the smoldering building and hit me with awithering glare, the same one she used to shame me when shecaught me cheating at Chutes and Ladders when we were both sixyears old.
"You're saying I should count my blessings?" she said.
"Just stay safe, Rosie."
The glare softened a little. "Yeah, you too," she said, although inmy job the worst that was likely to happen was a paper cut.
Two hours later, I sat at the counter in Haven Brothers, the city'sbest diner, sipping coffee from a heavy ceramic mug. The coffeewas so good that I hated cutting it with so much milk. My ulcergrowled that the milk wasn't helping anyway.
The mug was smeared with ink from a fresh copy of the cityedition. A pit bull, Rhode Island's unofficial state dog, had mauledthree toddlers on Atwells Avenue. The latest federal crime statisticshad Providence edging out Boston and Los Angeles as the per-capita stolen-car capital of the world. Ruggerio "the Blind Pig" Bruccola, the local mob boss who pretended he was in the vending machinebusiness, was suing the newspaper for printing that he was a mobboss pretending to be in the vending machine business. The statepolice were investigating game rigging at the state lottery commission.There was so much bad news that a perfectly good bad-news story, the fatal Mount Hope fire, had been forced below the fold onpage one. I didn't read that one because I'd written it. I didn't readthe others because they made my gut churn.
Charlie wiped beef-bloody hands on an apron that might havebeen white once and topped off my cup. "The hell you been, Mulligan?You smell like a fuckin' ashtray."
He didn't expect an answer, and I didn't offer one. He turnedback to his work, tearing open two packs of buns. He balanced adozen of them from wrist to shoulder along his sweat-slicked leftarm, slapped in twelve Ball Park franks, and added mustard andsauerkraut. A snack for the overnighters at Narragansett Electric.
I took a sip and flipped to the sports page for the spring trainingnews from Fort Myers.
Excerpted from Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva. Copyright 2010 by Bruce DeSilva. Excerpted by permission of Forge Books.