A new location this week: No longer at the landfill, with its prowling coyotes, strange odors, and the feeling I'm driving my patrol vehicle around the surface of a gigantic, many-layers-deep tomb of generational garbage. Or perhaps even a literal tomb, of human remains pickled and fermented in toxic waste, left over from the days here in Rhode Island when we played host for years to one of the most powerful crime families in America. All those dismembered informers, all the corpses left over from political infighting, all the borrowers who didn't pay their debts on time- they had to go somewhere. But now I have a new assignment.
I sit in my car in a snow-covered parking lot, on the outskirts of a small town called Valley Falls. I'm guarding the remains of a gigantic mill fire. The mill itself is out of commission, the central section reduced to nothing but a pile of burned beams and crumbled brickwork. The destroyed central section, however, is book-ended by two scorched but still mostly intact buildings at either end of the property. A security guard needs to be here at all times, because the owner intends to rebuild. The property insurance would be cancelled without a continuous human presence,so here I am. Parked beside a polluted mill pond, guarding more debris.
The pond itself is so polluted it never completely freezes over. The temperature has been below nine degrees for the past week, and I still see liquid water. At this temperature, even with the car heater maxed out, I feel a bone-deep chill. The chill brings on the need to step out into the 3 am deep freeze to make some yellow snow. Dressed in three layers of winter clothing, I walk into the shadow of the building's south end. My shoes crunch the frozen snow. I hear the trickle of the mill stream, hurrying over its cold bed of gravel and last autumn's drowned leaves. I unzip my fly with chilled fingers to begin my business, and that's when I hear the voices from behind the boarded windows.
They are shouts and terrified screams and empty echoes, now and then mixed with other, fainter sounds it hurts to think about. Mostly the sounds resemble loud conversation heard from a distance, and I think I almost understand what the words are saying. It's like standing outside the closed door of a banquet hall, hearing the conversation of the waiters and floor sweepers cleaning up after a reception.
For one thing, the dead voices behind those boarded windows are no more than fifty feet away. For another, the news the night of the fire said three members of senior management, working late on renovations, were among those killed by smoke inhalation and severe burns. All three were great-grandchildren of Emory Prentiss, who founded the mill more than a century ago. And the shouts and screams I heard standing out there in the snow, zipper between my cold fingers, were the voices of grownups, no question. But the other sounds, the quieter sounds, the sounds beneath the screams...
Beneath the screams, I heard the laughter of children.
I really need this job. How many jobs are there these days for a middle-aged guy with a high-school diploma? But if those boards start to move, or I start to hear those voices over the Pantera cd playing in the stereo, I don't care. I won't take my foot off the gas until I'm jobless and broke three states away.
Of course, before I do anything drastic, I should probably step out and take another listen, just to make sure I heard what I thought I heard in the first place. I do have a good imagination...