Smoke on the Water Episode 5

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 5: Hoyt

Boxes were everywhere. They seemed to multiply each time I glanced around the fixer-upper I’d had such burning ambition to renovate when I closed on the property. Now, standing amid the chaos of my stuff, the sheer scale of the project was finally sinking in. What had felt manageable in the abstract now loomed over me, a mammoth task that was going to take years. Not to mention money.

In the privacy of my kitchen—which didn’t appear to have been updated since the nineteen seventies and was weirdly truncated because of how some previous owner had chosen to divide the space—I was willing to concede that I might have bitten off more than I could chew.

Not that I’d admit that to Drew on pain of death. I was the elder brother. The one who knew what he was doing. And I’d find my way with the house. Somehow. I just needed to pick a starting point. Make progress on something.

Maybe I could put together the Adirondack chairs I’d ordered to go up on the second-story porch so I could enjoy my coffee with the sun on my days off duty. After being in land-locked Raleigh all this time, that view of the ocean over the dunes on the other side of the two-lane coastal road wasn’t something I’d take for granted. That was an improvement I could make before anything else. Though I had noted a faint spongy feel beneath my feet on both the upper and lower porches as I’d taken my initial tour of the whole place that told me I probably needed to move up replacing some porch boards first. After all the summers I’d worked construction growing up, I could do more than saw boards and hammer nails. That’d be an easy enough update. Certainly easier than updating the decorative elements like the porch frieze and gable trusses that were worn or missing after years of storms and neglect.

My gaze skimmed over the crumpled piece of paper in my hand, an attempt to list out the multitude of tasks ahead. Repair the roof. Replace the water heater on this side of the house. Knock out the dividing walls that had turned the place into a duplex. Check to see whether the plumbing needed upgrading. Not to mention the boatload of cosmetic projects like painting walls and refinishing floors. The list went all the way down the front and halfway down the back of the page, each item a reminder of the colossal amount of work that lay ahead. The one saving grace was that the electrical had been overhauled about ten years ago, so that was one major project I didn’t have to take on. 

I let the paper fall from my fingers, watching it land in a box labeled ‘Kitchen Stuff’.

Unpacking. I should be unpacking. But every time I started, my mind wandered to the larger tasks, the structural changes, the renovations needed. I’d have to make some decisions about whether to try to mimic the original architecture or update it to something more simplistic or modern. Like the windows. By some miracle, many of those remaining were original, with twelve-over-twelve double-hung sashes. But those that had been replaced with more modern styles absolutely detracted from the historic charm of the place. Did I want to go for historical accuracy or efficiency? The cost of my electric bill by the end of the summer might decide me on that one. So long as they were still weatherproof, that was a project for Future Me.

And then, unbidden, my thoughts drifted to Caroline. Caroline, with that watchful gaze and hard-won smile that just made me want to work harder to earn it. Would she give me a chance to actually do that? Or would this relationship be in name only, lasting only long enough to deter would-be predators?

My phone vibrated with a text.

Mom: Is there something you want to tell me?

“About what?”

As if she’d heard my reply, the little dots started bouncing.

Mom: About you and a certain hard-working young lady?

No. She can’t possibly have already heard about me and Caroline.

Mom: You should bring Caroline to dinner.

I could ignore it. Pretend I was caught up in the work I was supposed to be doing. Or catching up on sleep. But that increased the chances she’d show up here in person to reiterate the invitation. I wasn’t ready for her to see the state of the house. She’d worry, and I wouldn’t hear the end of it until I finished renovations. At this rate, that’d be when I retired.

MSo y’all can interrogate her? No, ma’am. It’s new. Leave it be.

That wasn’t entirely a lie. And after our dinner tomorrow night, I hoped it would be the full truth. If Caroline elected to date me in name only, I could probably tell my family what was really going on. They’d support the fiction in the name of keeping her safe.

I watched the dots appear and disappear half a dozen times before the answer finally came.

Mom: Sigh. Fine.

That would buy me a little time.

“Right. Unpacking.” I could at least deal with my bedroom. There were few enough changes that would be happening in there. Paint, eventually, but I wouldn’t tackle that until I had a clearer plan for the rest of the house.

No sooner had I dropped my phone into the pocket of my cargo shorts than it rang. Praying it wasn’t my mother, I fished it out again.

It was Jamal Edwards, the officer on shift at the firehouse. “Hey Hoyt, I hate to ask, but can you cover for me for a few hours? My mama just called. She managed to crack the tank on the toilet while changing out the guts, and I gotta go help her deal with that before it gets any worse.”

I hesitated, a part of me longing to say no, to focus on my own burgeoning disaster. But I couldn’t. It wasn’t in me to leave a member of my company in the lurch. “Sure, Jamal. I’ll be there. Give me fifteen to get across island.”

I hung up, a sense of relief washing over me, despite the unopened boxes and unfinished projects staring back at me. Right now, the job had to come first. If that gave me a reprieve from the overwhelming list of decisions I had to make, well, I’d call that a bonus for now. Maybe some distance would give me a little clarity.

Jamal was waiting outside when I pulled into the firehouse parking lot. “Thanks, man. I really appreciate this.”

“No problem. Good luck with that toilet replacement. I hope the hardware store actually has one in stock.”

“You and me both.”

I braced myself for the inevitable ribbing as I pushed through the door, greeted by the familiar smell of strong coffee and the sound of easy chatter. If my mom had heard, there was no chance the rest of Sutter’s Ferry FD hadn’t. Gossip was usually a favorite firehouse pastime, tied with poker and cooking.

Smokey, the oldest of the crew, looked up from where he sprawled on the sofa. “Hey, if it isn’t Lover Boy!”

Yep. I was in for it now. Because it was expected, I flashed a grin. “You guys never miss a beat, do you?”

Tank, built like his namesake and the powerhouse of our crew, propped his sock feet up on the coffee table. “So, when’s the wedding? Got your tux ready?”

The room erupted in laughter. I shook my head, playing along. “Slow down. We’re just having dinner.”

“That’s not what I heard.” Quick on his feet and with his words, Flash gestured with a bottle of ginger ale. “What’s the scoop, Hoyt? You and Caroline an item now?”

It was evidence of how long I’d been off-island that I’d so vastly underestimated how fast word of last night’s encounter would spread.

“If they weren’t before, I’d say they are now,” Smokey added. “Word on the street is you got all kinds of possessive about your girl in front of Troy Lincoln last night.”

The questions were nosy, but harmless—the kind of ball-busting that forged family ties and made long hours at the firehouse bearable. “We were keeping things on the down-low, but a public display seemed necessary. I know I’ve been gone a while, but I certainly didn’t see any evidence that Troy has improved with age.”

As I poured myself a cup of coffee, conversation shifted, the others sharing what they’d heard about Troy. All evidence that he was just as much of an asshole now as he had been at eighteen. I was hoping the subject had been effectively steered elsewhere, but Blaze, the youngest crew member, who I’d already figured out was the one looking to incite fires in any conversation, made the mistake of bringing it up again.

“You know, with her family history…”

Temper stirred. I hadn’t thought anyone would be bold enough to bring up that garbage directly to me. It wouldn’t do to lose my shit here, though, so I held up a hand and strove for some diplomacy. “Don’t go there. Caroline’s her own person. And as for her brother, I don’t believe he had anything to do with Gwen Busby’s disappearance.”

There was a moment of silence, a sign of respect for my stance. I appreciated that they seemed to know when to back off. This was the kind of thing that could absolutely damage the camaraderie of the team, and we couldn’t afford that. Out on the job, we depended on each other to stay safe and alive.

I took a sip of my coffee, my mind wandering to Caroline. She was strong, resilient, and had been through more than her fair share of trouble, thanks to the island’s rumor mill. I admired her for it. And despite the gossip, I was looking forward to spending some real one-on-one time with her, to see where things could go if she’d only give us a chance.

The alarm shattered the afternoon calm, catapulting us all into action. The banter, the teasing, the heavy cloud of gossip, all evaporated as we leapt into coordinated action. In the midst of the controlled chaos, a small part of me couldn’t help but feel grateful for the interruption. It was a reminder of why I’d come back to Hatterwick—to make a difference, to be part of this brotherhood.

The fire was on the Atlantic side of the island, along the row of houses that had fallen to investors who were more interested in making vacation rentals than homes. As we approached, an ominous cloud of smoke billowed into the sky, a stark contrast to the peaceful backdrop of beach and ocean. A visibly shaken couple stood well back from the blaze as the engine rolled to a stop. The next booking or owners? Either way, they were likely the ones who’d called it in.

With Jamal out, it was on me to take command. It was a role I’d trained for, even if this was my first time out in this capacity with this department. The responsibility of command meant overseeing the safety of not just the structure and its occupants, but my crew as well.

“Is anyone inside?” I shouted.

The man wrapped an arm around his companion. “We don’t know. We spotted the smoke when we got here.”

I scanned quickly for other vehicles but saw only the car the couple must have arrived in. “Let’s get a line on that fire in back. Flash, head in through the front and check for anyone inside.”

My team sprang into action, efficiency and urgency in every step. Tank and Smokey started unrolling the hoses, while Flash and I quickly donned our breathing apparatus.

“Everybody look alive. It doesn’t look too bad yet, but we all know this can turn on a dime.”

Flash kicked in the front door and hustled inside, and the rest of us moved around to the back. The fire hadn’t made it to the wooden deck yet. Hose in hand, I pounded up the steps and made for the back door, breaking my way inside. The heat in the smoke-filled kitchen hit like a physical force, a wall of searing air that threatened to push me back. I gripped the hose, directing the water at the base of the flames, the most effective point of attack. The fire was stubborn, devouring the wooden cabinets and kitchen fixtures.

“Get another line in here. Keep the water on it!”

The crackling of the flames and the hiss of steam as water met fire filled the air, a chaotic symphony as familiar as my own name. I kept a wary eye on the ceiling, mindful of potential structural damage. It was a constant calculation as we fought to contain, then extinguish the blaze.

By the time the fire was finally doused, the structure was mostly intact, but the kitchen was devastated. As outcomes went, it was a hell of a lot better than it could’ve been.

“Hey L-T, come look at this.”

Following Smokey’s gesture, I examined the mess of what used to be the stove. What had once been a plastic bin of—something—had melted to the top. Evidence of assorted containers was inside. The burn pattern suggested this was the point of origin.

“Accident or incendiary?” Smokey murmured.

In my years as a firefighter, I’d seen all kinds of idiot moves. Setting a cleaning caddy on a stove that was still hot was well within the realm of possibility. But something about this was raising my internal alarms. “Too soon to say.”

“L-T, the owner is here.”

I followed Tank outside, where a middled-aged guy stood at the edge of the perimeter we’d established, one arm folded over his chest, the other braced behind his head as he stared at the house in horror.

“I’m Lieutenant McNamara. You’re the owner?”

“Yes. Jim Foster. How bad is it?”

“Not a total loss, but you’re out a kitchen for sure.” I didn’t mention the additional damage from our suppression efforts. “Once we clear the house, we’ll need to investigate to determine the cause of the fire. You’ll need our report for your insurance.”

“How long will that take?”

“I can’t give any estimates on that at this time. We’re going to need to know who had access to the house.”

Foster speared a hand through his wiry gray hair. “Sure. Of course. The last renters left early this morning.”

“You have some names?”

“The registration was to a guy named Lucas Platt. I’d have to pull the records to see who else was supposed to be here with him. Bachelor party. My cleaning crew said they left the place a total wreck.”

“So the cleaning crew has been in since they left?”

“Yeah. Got here this morning around ten, I think.”

“Anybody since then?”

“Not so far as I know.”

“Right. And the name of the cleaners?”

“Caroline and Gabi Carrera.”

I barely held in my jolt of surprise at hearing Caroline’s name. I had to stay focused. There were procedures to follow, and it would be essential that I stick to them exactly.

The fire was out, but it seemed the aftermath was just beginning.