NO SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE • by Debbie Cowens

Watching the fire was a curiously dreamlike experience. The torrent of grey smoke billowed up in a spiralling cloud, speckled with glowing embers, spinning upwards in dizzying trajectories like fire-flies fleeing for the clean air of the night sky above. It would have been beautiful had it not been for the choking mix of smoke and the acrid reek of burning plastic.

Nick felt as though they were standing under a hazy dome as they watched the garage burning. The low rumble of the engine, the shouts of people moving with surreal slowness were muffled and insubstantial. Only the deafening crackles as the wooden structure burned rang out in the night like gunfire or firecrackers — words that Nick had never associated with the noise of fire until tonight. The merchandise, ten of thousands of dollars worth of it, all hidden away in innocent-looking cardboard boxes, did not make a sound as it perished inside the flaming carcass of the garage.

He had been the first one to hear the fire. The bang outside had startled him just as he was getting undressed. He’d thought it was just a car backfiring (another fire word for a loud noise — it was like playing that word association game). When he’d looked out his window, the garage had been ablaze. He’d woken the others, called the fire department and run outside but the fire had already engulfed the old garage. You never really knew how you would react in an emergency until you were in the moment and it had turned out that Nick wasn’t the dashing into burning buildings type, not even with thousands of dollars at stake.

Nick’s bare feet had remained planted on the cold concrete of the driveway while the heat rushing off the fire prickled his face. The fire-fighters had arrived, the red light from the truck strobing as though it had aspirations to get a lighting gig in the rave scene. The fire-hose was smaller and more flaccid than Nick had imagined when they had first dragged it out, but it sprang to attention once it was doing its job, beating down the fire with a constant barrage of white water.

Job. Even the hose had one, which meant that it was better off than Nick. He realised with the sickening stomach-lurch of a rollercoaster’s sudden plummet that he was now redundant for the second time in two months. Still, it could be worse, couldn’t it? At least the fire-fighters had subdued the fire and stopped it spreading to the house. Sophie was sobbing. Paul had his arm around her shoulder, playing the consoling boyfriend. Nick envied that at least Paul had something to do; he felt slightly ridiculous, standing around uselessly while burly men in uniforms extinguished the flaming ruins of the garage.

“It’ll be all right, Soph,” Paul’s macho boyfriend voice cut through the fog of sound. “At least no one’s hurt.”

“I can’t believe this is happening to us,” Sophie moaned.

To us? How was it affecting her? What reason did she have to stand around blubbering? Sophie hadn’t been involved in their business. In fact, Nick was certain Paul wouldn’t have told her anything about the hustle. Sophie was one of those good girl types. So why did she care about the garage going up in flames? It wasn’t her livelihood she was watching disappear in a foul-smelling haze of smoke and blazing orange.

The annoying thing was it wouldn’t even be that bad for Paul. He still had his IT helpdesk job. The whole business had been like a game to him. Just another scheme to make money on the side. They had already made enough that they were above their outlay for the initial purchase. As usual Paul would come out fine; it was only Nick who was screwed.

Redundant from his job at the call-centre and now a redundant criminal as well. Not exactly an impressive resumé.

“You doing okay, mate?” Paul looked over at Nick, his head craning over Sophie’s face as she burrowed into his shoulder. “It’ll be all right.”

Nick nodded stiffly but even this wordless response was a lie. It wasn’t going to be all right. He was being punished. This was karma — Nick’s failed attempt to get ahead by swindling old people and young families, burning up in thick smoky irony.

“Pity they weren’t genuine, eh?” Paul leaned over and whispered to him.

A joke? Paul really wasn’t bothered at all, was he?

Maybe Nick would see the humour at some point in the future. Ten years from now when he had a proper job, a house, maybe a wife, kids and a dog.

He stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans. His right hand fumbled around something. It was a crumpled twenty-dollar note. One of his customers had given it to him that afternoon. An old widow had insisted on handing him the tip after he had installed the fake smoke detector for her. She’d given him a cup of tea and a slice of gingerbread as well. Nick didn’t like tea but he had drunk it anyway. She hadn’t realised she had been paying him for screwing a useless plastic shell to the ceiling of her hallway. The least he could do was smile and drink her sugary tea.

“Thank you so much. I will sleep a lot better knowing it’s there,” Her words drifted back, filtered through the toxic-smelling smoke.

Nick watched as the fire-fighters finished off the last of the flames. The fire had left nothing but a smouldering ash skeleton of a garage and the blackened remains of two thousand imitation smoke detectors melted into worthless sludge.

Debbie Cowens lives on the Kapiti Coast of New Zealand with her husband and son. She is the co-creator of the Matador card games Dig, Mob and Cow and an enthusiast of drama and amateur film-making. She has worked as an English language teacher in Japan and more recently taught English and Media Studies at high school. You can read more about her and her writing at her blog.

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