The Fire: Is fire alive? Does it possess intent or emotions or is it simply one of the four forces of nature, indifferent to human life? What would a fireman say if you asked this question? We asked Jason Powell, author of No Man’s Ghost, a brand-new, engrossing novel about a rookie New York fireman. See the interview with him following the Chapter 1 excerpt where he answers this question.
No Man’s Ghost: This may be the most popular quotation among firefighters: “Let no man’s ghost ever come back and say his training failed him.”
The Tale: Charlie Davids, freshly graduated from the New York City Fire Academy, is starting his first day at the firehouse. He’s considered on probation and thus called a “probie” by the other firefighters at Engine 99 and Ladder 88, yet incessantantly reprimanded for calling them “sir.” But that becomes the least of his worries when a philandering man, angry at his wife for tossing him out of their apartment, decides to harass her by calling in fake fires. But when that isn’t enough, events become dangerous . . ..
No Man’s Ghost
WHEN A WINDOW ON the sixth floor exploded, the crowd across the street gasped and backed away. A firetruck in front of the building had a ladder extended to the roof and the man climbing it paused at the sound of the blast before continuing up quickly. On the ground, residents of the building rushed out of the entrance in pajamas and robes or shorts and T-shirts, some wrapped in bed sheets. They ran, bent low, hands over their heads, ash and glass and small debris falling around them. Police tape stretched from a lamppost on the corner to a green sanitation garbage pail dragged to the middle of the street, and cops waved the residents behind it to join a crowd of passersby who’d stopped to watch.
Those from the building huddled together at the front of the crowd and looked on in awe, wringing their hands or rubbing the backs of their arms. From where they stood, every visible window on the top floor was in flames. The building was only six stories high, and the heat from the fire could be felt at street level.
More firetrucks arrived. Firefighters poured from them, looked up quickly, then hurried to the building. A long hose made up of smaller ones connected together snaked its way from the side of a firetruck to the street, onto the sidewalk, then disappeared inside. More residents ran out, dodging the firefighters and hopping the hose, to join their neighbors across the street. On the top floor, black smoke began to seep from behind the fire in one of the windows; a thin, shifting cloud silhouetted against the night sky. The flames from that window flickered stubbornly, pulsed, then finally disappeared altogether. Water splashed out in spurts, raining down on the street below, and the crowd cheered.
The smoke from a second window turned black and the fire in that window went out too. A firefighter appeared in the first window, using a tool to knock shards of glass and charred wood away. The people on the street applauded at the sight of him, and the cheers grew louder. The firetruck in front of the building had another man climbing the ladder now, obscured occasionally by the new smoke coming from the windows. Those in the crowd with children crouched to the kids’ height and pointed him out.
Then two paramedics pulling a stretcher ran past the crowd to the building. From the entrance, two firefighters, one walking backward, came out carrying someone underneath the arms and knees. Either by chance or discretion, it was difficult to see the person being carried; but the firefighters weren’t struggling, which gave some in the crowd the impression that whoever it was didn’t weigh much. Someone small.
The two paramedics paired up with the two firefighters and got whoever it was onto the stretcher. One of the medics started pushing on the person’s chest while the other held an oxygen mask over their face, and together they rolled the stretcher to the back of an open ambulance.
The two firefighters went back inside.
At the front of the crowd, furtive looks were exchanged and for a long moment, no one spoke. Then some obvious questions were asked, and an unofficial and unorganized census began. Next door neighbors looked for each other and made sure kids and elderly family members were out of the building and accounted for. Friends looked for friends who didn’t live on the same floor but lived in the building. Nearly everyone looked for the young girl with autism who lived on the fifth floor. She lived with her single mom, and everyone was relieved to find them both near the back of the crowd, on a bench.
Then the search narrowed. Each floor above the first had four apartments and everyone seemed generally confident that those who lived below the top floor had made it out safely. But what about the four families on six?
Two were accounted for right away. One family was away at Jersey Shore for the long Fourth of July weekend. The man who lived next door knew that because he’d been asked to receive a package for them. He and his girlfriend were in the crowd with everyone else, and though they were obviously upset about the fire, they were physically okay. Firefighters had practically knocked his door off the hinges, he said, and rushed them out of the apartment. He didn’t know the status of his neighbors in the other two apartments—a couple in one, a widowed old lady in the other—but from what he was looking at from the street, he feared that if they weren’t out by now, then they weren’t okay. He said so, and those who heard him agreed.
The crowd looked back to the sixth floor. Flames still flickered in a few of the windows. Men could be seen in others, on their knees, or duckwalking with flashlights on their helmets or coats, one behind the other, aiming a thick hose at a corner unseen from the street. Then a rumbling sound like thunder, a crash, and they were gone.
A cloud of dust and smoke, flecked with glowing embers, rolled ferociously from the top floor like a tide. It spread out above the street and again the crowd gasped and retreated.
Across from them, firefighters outside the building shouted to each other and into their radios. One of the men from the roof was back on the ladder, holding on to the rungs, unmoving. Two more men climbed to the top of the truck and called out to him, but if he heard them, he didn’t show it.
At the entrance to the building firefighters streamed out, apparently uninjured, looking up once they cleared the threshold. They peeled oxygen masks off their faces and joined their coworkers, worry and sweat on their faces.
The man on the ladder started down then, moving slowly, but doing it on his own. The two at the foot of the ladder waited for him, but stared at the windows on the top floor, where muffled shouts could be heard behind the cloud.
More firefighters exited the building, some with soot on their coats and helmets. Paramedics and emergency medical technicians ran to the entrance to meet them, but the firefighters waved them away and joined the others in the street, looking up.
Then a distant alarm started from the top floor. No one in the crowd across the street had ever heard the sound before, but it was eerily high-pitched, and the look of unease on the faces of the firefighters made those who saw them worry. When the alarm started, a fireman in the street said something on a radio clipped to his chest, and five other firefighters near the entrance grabbed a sled full of tools and ran inside the building. The dust cloud was dissipating, and as it did, the sound of the alarm grew clearer.
Then another one started up there. Out of sync with the first, but same eerie high-pitched tone, same anxiety from the firefighters on the street. And a third.
The cloud had cleared enough that the windows were again visible. Everyone in the street, both in front of and behind the police tape, looked up at them. Fire burned somewhere inside, behind a few of the windows. In the others, darkness. No movement. Just a creepy chorus of alarms.
The fireman in front of the building who’d spoken before spoke again into his radio, and others started waiving to another group of paramedics, who pushed a stretcher covered in bags through the crowds. A second hose line snaked into the building now, and the medics lifted the wheels of the stretcher over both lines on their way to the entrance.
Though the sun had long ago set, the temperature was still high. New York City was on its fourth day of a heatwave. Some of the fire from the building had been washed away, but much remained and could still be felt below. Despite those things, many in the crowd looked at the worry on the faces of the firefighters or up at the windows, listened to the alarms in the darkness, and shivered.
A woman from the fifth floor, the autistic girl’s mother, chewed her bottom lip and stroked her daughter’s hair. She turned to the man from the sixth floor and asked, “How did this start? Do you know?”
The man shrugged. “Only God knows,” he said. But he was wrong.
TWO STREETS AWAY, out of the glow of the lights from the emergency vehicles, the man who started the fire leaned on a gate and watched the growing crowd. He was wearing a bright shirt and was afraid that if he got any closer, he’d be spotted.
An ambulance sped away from the building and passed him, lights flashing, sirens wailing. There was only one person in the front, which meant there was someone in the back with a patient. The man turned his head and watched the ambulance until it turned a corner and was lost to sight.
And he laughed.
About Jason Powell
Jason Powell is an author and active FDNY firefighter. His work was published first here at The Fictional Cafe and has since been published in Slate and numerous online writing outlets. When he isn’t at the firehouse or at a desk, he can be found out in New York City with his backpack full of snacks or lost in the pages of a novel. Find him online at authorjasonpowell.com, on Instagram at Uh_thousand_words, and Twitter. His first novel, No Man’s Ghost, was published today and is available on Amazon in hardcover and Kindle.
Featured image courtesy New York Daily News
An Interview with Author Jason Powell
FC: So, is fire alive, Jason?
JP: This is a great question, Jack. Yes, fire is alive. It eats and breathes and grows. But it has no intent other than to keep doing those things. Fire goes from places of low oxyge to places with a higher concentration. The reason we tell people to leave a room with a fire and close the door behind them, is because the fire wants to leave. It wants to get out so it can keep growing. It will do so by any means, at the fastest speed it can manage unless it is fought or starved. I do think that fire is a force indifferent to life, but with no emotion or ill intent. It just wants to exist, and to do so, it has to constantly be destroying something. Anything from the wick in a candle to a person’s home, to a forest full of trees. For it to live, it has to destroy something. So, yes. Fire is all of those things. It’s alive, and a force of nature, and indifferent to human life. It makes for some interesting stories.
FC: Which inspired you to write a novel?
JP: Yes. I’ll always remember I read in Fictional Café an interview with someone. I can’t remember his name. After I submitted my story you commented that when you read my first chapter you wanted to sign me up with an agent immediately. It was all the motivation I needed to finish the book. It was a hard time in my life because one of my coworkers had passed away, but it was the motivation I needed.
FC: But you stuck with it. You wrote and wrote, and you shopped for an agent and a publisher and now here you are, on your journey as a published novelist.
JP: It was a long process. Now with this result. That’s the present.
I like physically turning my book’s pages.
FC: Ha ha! Have you started a second book?
JP: I’ve finished the second book.
FC: You’ve finished it already! Is it also a fireman book?
JP: So the main character, Charles, in No Man’s Ghost, is a probationary firefighter who meets a woman named Libby and she becomes his love interest. The whole story takes place over one week so love is a strong word, but she becomes his girlfriend, living with him that week. The second book focuses on her, so Charles is in the second too, an endless story, but this one is mostly about Libby. So no, it doesn’t take place in the firehouse.
FC: OK, very nice.
JP: Yeah, but it’s a thriller. Book three, which I’ve started outlining, goes back to him.
FC: Nice, alternating back and forth like that. Yeah, I like that.
JP: I think a reader could begin reading any of the three books and not need to read any of the others.
JP: But a reader who reads the first and then the second will be rewarded when they read the third, because Charles’ and Libby’s back story makes for a better platform.
FC: Oh! You’re so smart.
JP: Ha ha. I recently got a job with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) for the IMT (Incident Management Team). So whenever there is a natural disaster or a major incident, IMT deploys about twenty of their members to go to the local jurisdiction and help out in whatever ways they need.
Mostly, we do like tornadoes or hurricanes or wildfires, right? This job has created so many more writing ideas that flow into this world of mine. I’m excited. I now have five books in my head. Charles is still the main character.
FC: How did it occur to you to write the first book?
JP: Yeah, this thing started at our firehouse, something that started happening every single night in November 2017 until January 2018. New York City has these emergency callboxes – we call them E.R.S. – where you can pull a tab and call either the police department or the fire department for emergencies.
FC: Didn’t know that.
JP: Well, most of them aren’t used anymore because people have cellphones. But every night during that time, every single night around two o’clock in the morning, a drunk guy would use the fire department call box and ask for help, because the ambulance would take him to the hospital where he could sleep and get food. We learned that’s what happened, that you can do it and because of insurance he doesn’t have to pay for the ambulance. He has some place to sleep and isn’t homeless. But like every night? He didn’t always have need to. This guy, his wife wouldn’t let him back in. I think that was what he told me. He lived somewhere. He just told us his wife wouldn’t let him back in when he was drunk.
FC: Right, right. Yeah, yeah.
JP: He was drunk. Literally every night. At that time, I was off probation, but there was another guy who was still on. I felt bad for him because when you’re a probie, you have to put on all your gear for every call. We knew this guy was not really sick. We knew it wasn’t a real emergency. But we had to go because he called us. We didn’t put on our gear because it wasn’t an emergency, but the probie had to because . . . he was a probie. He had to put on his gear all the time. Then around December I was thinking, I wonder what would happen if we had a chronic false alarm box go off in a real fire. Like was somebody calling a fire over and over again but it wasn’t really a fire. And because we know it’s not really a fire we don’t get prepared for it, but the only person who is prepared is the probie because he has to be prepared, and it turns out to be a real fire. And that’s where the idea for the book came from.
FC: That’s really interesting. Who are some of your favorite authors?
JP: Lee Child.
FC: All right, yes, yes, he is so awesome.
JP: That’s definitely my favorite living author. I’ve read everything Lee Child wrote and with all due respect to him and Dan Brown, I feel as if I kind of see their formula now. Like I’m no longer surprised. And it’s still entertaining, like they’re good beach reads. I like to read when I have a writer’s block to motivate me but I won’t read Lee Child or a Brown then because they aren’t really going to motivate me because I already know their formula. Someone like Stephen King I enjoy reading because I feel like you never know what you’re going to get.
FC: Always something different, yeah.
JP: And so John Sandford, Stephen King, Walter Mosley. Donald Westlake was – is – my favorite author, but he passed away in 2008. I read most everything he wrote, even under his pseudonyms.
FC: We have very similar tastes, man, very similar.
JP: I’ve read all of S.A. (“Shawn”) Cosby’s books, and I really enjoyed them. They’re thrillers, but noir, so I don’t read them when I have writer’s block, because they’re too different from my style of writing.
You know, another great book is The Great Gatsby. That one is a lesson on writing. It’s very well told.
FC: Yeah. Well, we’re out of time, Jason. Thank you for writing this novel. You’re a good writer, man. You really are. You’re paying attention to detail. I look forward to the sequel. Have you given it a title?
JP: Thank you too. I’m calling it Shadows in The Dark. Bye.