You be the fire investigator

Yesterday, I almost burned down our house.

I was in my office doing my morning workout to the exercise video from hell (One. Two. Three. Kick. One. Two. Three. Kick.)

Let me describe the room: There is a television set just inside the door, an open area in the center, and my French provincial desk (Macy’s circa 1990) under two casements windows overlooking the backyard. The desk and windows are to my left as I face the TV. When I exercise (Twist. Bend. Twist. Bend), my ferret moves back and forth, trying to find the optimum location to trip me and cause irreversible brain damage.

My desk contains the usual writer’s clutter. Toward the front is a pile of legal pads, construction paper, news clippings, and a calendar. Next to that is a thick cardboard box containing six ink bottles – the kinds that students once kept in inkwells on the desks in one room schoolhouses – perfect for dipping the braids of the girls who sat in front of them in class.

Along the back of my desk are a glass shaded desk lamp and a small basket containing a bag of Korean War medals, an empty bottle of 10% cocaine solution in honor of Sherlock Holmes, a roll of tape, and an index card on which I have typewritten my favorite quotation from Cyrano de Bergerac.

Beside the basket are three pen holders: The first contains my magic markers, a scissors, a magnifying glass, a ruler, a one-hole punch, and a letter opener. The second is filled with blue, black, and red ballpoint pens. The third isn’t really a penholder at all, but a sweet little Navajo pot given to me by my brother, Chucky, in which I keep half-a-dozen Papermate Retractable # 2 pencils – the ones I use to write my books.

The only other items running along the back of my desk are a clock, a silk-lined box containing my Agatha Christie fountain pen, a framed picture of me and Charlie, and a stapler. The desk abuts my windowsill, on either side of which are bookends representing the lions that guard the entrance to The Art Institute in Chicago.

There is usually a small coffee table in the middle of the room, but I slip it under the desk when I exercise (Kick. Slide. Big step left. Trip over ferret. Big step right. Slide. Slide).

While I am sliding left, I look to my left and do a double take, because I think I see a wisp of ... But no. It can’t be. I walk to my desk and shuffle through my legal pads and papers. I sniff.

No smoke. No fire.

I return to the center of the room (Kick. Slide. Kick. Slide). Irresistibly, I am drawn leftward again. And damned if I don’t see another wisp of ... something. It is curling toward the ceiling as if about to materialize into a genie from a magic lamp.

I stop. I do not have a magic lamp. I do not believe in genies.

I go back to my desk. I sift through more papers. I put my hand on the box containing the ink bottles. I feel heat. Smoke is coming from the back of the box and the cardboard is smoldering.

Instantly, I grab the box. I move it ... just a heartbeat before it would have burst into flames.

And that brings us to today’s assignment. You are the fire investigator. You already know where the fire started. Look at the secondhand on your watch. I will give you sixty seconds. Now, figure out its cause.

Sixty. Fifty. Forty (Twist left. Twist right. Kick. Kick. Slide. Slide. I may as well do some exercises while I wait.) Thirty. Twenty. Ten. Five. Time!

Give up?

The almost-fire in my office was caused by the magnifying glass in the first penholder on my desk.

In the fifteen years that I have kept that very same magnifier on that very same desk, there has never been a hint of heat or a swirl of smoke. No charring. No scorching. Zero. Nada. Nothing.

So ... why yesterday?

Maybe because it was a bright, clear, brilliantly sunny day. Maybe because my neighbor cut down a tree which had previously blocked the sun. Maybe because my Venetian blinds were tilted at a slightly different angle. Maybe because I had moved my penholder or magnifying glass a smidgen this way or that.

All we know for certain is that parallel beams of sunlight passed through the convex lens of my magnifying glass, converged, focused radiant energy on my ink box, and (almost) caused the box to ignite.

A fire investigator who has a fire is something like a shoemaker whose children have no shoes. It is disconcerting, embarrassing, and scary.

Usually, I am very, very careful. Yesterday, I was not careful enough.

Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit

Copyright © 2008, Shelly Reuben

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