As with so many of my adventures, last night's began with an unusual odor. A burning odor. An odor like a bug caught in a halogen lamp. You know the kind — a choking, full-bodied aroma that makes you yearn for the fresh scent of bovine colon.

At first I thought it was my space heater causing trouble again. But that wasn't it. I traced the smell out into the hall, then into the bathroom. And that's where I discovered smoke. Not a lot of smoke, but enough, say, to reveal a flashlight beam. It seemed to be coming from the exhaust vent.

Now, most exhaust vents exorcise offensive odors. Mine invites them in. I've smelled neighbors' cooking wafting through the bathroom before. And, on occasion, their baking, if you know what I mean. So, it was no stretch to me that the same fan grate was the origin of this faint and mysterious smoke.

I threw on a sweater and walked around to the other side of my apartment building to find an answer. I figured it would be a logical assumption that the smoke was coming from either the apartment directly behind my john, or possibly the one below it.

Unfortunately, nobody was home in either one. But I did hear a friendly beep coming from the apartment downstairs. Beep, beep, beep ... beep, beep, beep. Kind of like an alarm on a wristwatch. Certainly not the distinctive SCREEESCREEESCREEE one would expect from a smoke alarm, though, which left me a little confused. But there was that burning smell.

So, I found myself faced with two possible scenarios. In the first, I call the fire department and report a slight haze in my bathroom and a less-than-alarming alarm around the backside of the building, prompting two dozen geared-up hose jockeys and a fire-and-rescue team to race to the scene, lights and sirens blazing away, inviting half the complex out into the drizzle to watch me instigate Dallas's finest into axing their way into someone's home to discover three guys huddled around a bong and a Simon.

In the other, I shrug my shoulders and go back to YouTube as flames devour the building and take my life and the lives of the seven other apathetic bastards who didn't do anything.

So, I dialed 911.

As predicted, the fire department responded in their sensibly precautious way, fully geared and prepared for any scenario. I showed one group the smoke in the bathroom and led another to the suspect apartment, where they determined the beep, beep, beep to indeed be a smoke alarm.

(This, incidentally, worries me about the effectiveness of the rest of the alarms in the complex. If that one was any indication, then they've apparently been designed to, in the event of a fire, rouse us tenderly so as not to put us in a fussy mood. New from First Alert: the Smoke Dove with Test and Snooze buttons.)

The number of firefighters on the scene was growing, as was the general anxiety surrounding the building. But with no way to get in touch with management in time to avoid a possible catastrophe, one of the fire crew cut through the apprehension and radioed whoever's in charge of making the borderline judgment calls. He said bust the door down. So they did, in that dramatic way only firemen can do.

Smoke billowed out, firefighters rushed in and there was a moment of tense anticipation as everyone waited to find out how the night would end. From inside the apartment, a voice called out.

"Got her! I've got her!"

Out raced a suspender-clad hero, carrying something through the haze.

"Don't worry, it's okay now!"

He hurried to a safe distance and carefully set down that which he had rescued. It was chicken and noodles. Badly burned chicken and noodles. Someone had left a burner on.

I almost felt bad for causing such a fuss over something so silly, but I was glad no one got hurt. Besides, the firemen were in good spirits, making a joke or two about the situation and chatting with me a bit. And one of them assured me that the noodles, which had become charred and were glowing like embers, would probably have brought the whole building down given another 5 minutes, so calling 911 was the smart thing to do.

Thus, the after-school special comes to a close. And knowing is half the battle. Merry Christmas.