Friday, November 13, 2009

A Twist Of Noir 250 - Timothy P. Monaghan


On Thursday, August 29, 1968, after Cynthia moved into her dorm and after orientation she had the rest of the day to herself: she was born and raised on her grandfather’s farm in Iowa and it was her first day in a big city, Philadelphia. In the mid-sixties, she and her grandfather watched the dramatic social events of the sixties on TV and they came to the conclusion that the longhaired young men Cynthia met at Iowa State University were not the genuine article – a hippie. The Iowa State young men were just farm-hippies: the sons of farmers with long hair that drank beer, smoked marijuana, and talked farming. So the first chance she had, Cynthia went hunting for the real thing, a genuine city-hippie.

She asked around and found out the closest location where hippies congregated. It was about a mile from campus, a short walk for Cynthia. After some awkward questions to random long haired young men, and women in sack-like dresses or just pants and jeans, to her surprise, she ended up with in a hippie ‘family’ house, a commune. About twenty young men and women lived in small, three-story house, three rooms on top of each other, at the end of an alley. The small house had a coal-burning furnace.

Cynthia was full of questions and listened, trying to understand the beliefs of this genuine city-hippie ‘family’. They explained to her their hate of ‘the establishment’, the status quo, the war in Vietnam, and a general disgust with American society.

“That’s why we live together, Cynthia, we’ve pulled away from the accepted norms, we’re living our own way. No rules, just smoking dope and dropping acid.”

Cynthia was concerned about dropping or drinking any ‘acid’ but they laughed and explained that ‘acid’ was LSD, a popular hallucinogenic. They offered her some, she declined and things started to get awkward as some of the longhaired men dropped acid and started to act real strange. They stared at Cynthia’s body and drooled. She felt uncomfortable, made an excuse, and left.

Two months later, Cynthia read about a fire that killed five people on the same street where her hippie ‘family’ lived. She worried that it was them. The university warned students to stay out of that section of the city; it had the highest assault rate in the city. But she had to find out. Despite their crazy ethics, she could not get them out of her mind. So her next free afternoon, she went to visit her hippie family.

The small house was a burned-out shell with small, thin snakes of smoke drifting upward, looking like the aftermath of a Hindu funeral. Cynthia stood stunned. A voice from behind her broke into her grief.

“Did you know any of the deceased?”

“And you are?”

Irritated, he reached in his jacket pocket and flipped out a detective’s badge.

“Do you suspect murder?”

“Did you know them?”

“Yes.” She told her story.

When she finished, they both looked at the smoking ruin of a small row house. Finally, the detective broke protocol and told her, “The five that were killed were a couple of feet from the door.” He pointed to a cluster of small orange ‘evidence’ flags.

“That’s where they found the five who died.”

He nodded yes.

“Did the rest...jump out windows?”

Another yes, then he explained. “It was a slow-moving fire. Started in the basement. That’s where they stored their drugs. They had a small laboratory down there.”

“What started the fire?”

“The furnace. Coal-burning furnaces require a certain amount of maintenance. They don’t tend to themselves. The fire started in the basement but they had plenty of time to get out. The five who died were so high they just watched the fire approach. One of the survivors told me, ‘We go by our own rules.’ What the hell does that mean? When the fire hit the space cadets, they started screaming but they were so high they couldn’t find the door a few feet away.”

“If one of them was just sane enough to lead the rest out...”

“Rules, simple fire prevention, coal heater maintenance, fire escape procedure – all rules. But they made up their own.”

BIO: Timothy is an attorney living in the suburbs of Washington, DC. His first short story was published in Long Story Short, with two others that have accepted for other publications but not published yet. He's written a mystery novel, the first few ‘set up’ chapters can be seen at McFayden's Mess.

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