Biggie sat in his car, bored out of his mind.
He’d been feeling this way for about an hour now. Looking at his clock, he wasn’t surprised to see that was about as long as he’d been here. He’d played music. Listened to a Team Tiger Awesome podcast. Seeing no one else in the car park at one in the morning, and since Sophie hadn’t replied to his text, he had entertained the idea of having a cheeky wank. After a mental tug-o-war, he decided a journalist getting caught jerking himself off whilst watching porn on his phone at the top of town wouldn’t be a good career move.
Especially since he was on assignment.
The Crawley Gazette was small-fry, but it paid. Biggie knew he wouldn’t be going anywhere with the paper. It was simply a stepping stone on the way to something bigger. Better. Something national. Mainstream. But he also knew he would have to put in his dues. Spend the years peddling local stories until he could score big.
Tonight, for reasons he still couldn’t fathom, he was chasing less than small-fry. He was chasing a kids dream assignment.
A week ago he had received an email from one, Alessa Montrose. Lived in Ifield. One of Crawley’s thirteen districts, dragged into being part of the town in its formative years. Alessa had told him she had been walking the dog in Tilgate Park one evening, making her way across the car park at the top of Tilgate hill when she heard a scream.
She had checked everywhere. Her and her Dachshund rummaged through the undergrowth until she found enough sense to call the police. They joined the search two minutes later. Turned out a patrol was local, two officers picking up a dinner of sandwiches down the road on Tilgate Parade.
The trio searched for an hour, concentrating their efforts in the area from which Alessa believed she heard the scream: a patch of trees to the west of the car park. A small space between an access road and the bottom of the hill.
They didn’t find a thing.
The police put the scream down to a collection of occurrences placing it into the “possibility” box. Kids playing a prank. Foxes. Deer. After all, she had heard the scream in that awkward area where nature met the bricks and mortar of the urban. A dozen things could be held accountable. The police went on their way. Alessa went home, shaken and unhappy that she had simply been told that she had been mistaken when she knew it was something else.
Alessa knew the park. She had walked her dog there twice a day for the past five years. She knew the sounds of the forest. The foxes. The deer. The myriad birds which called the park home, whether long term or in their line of migration. And she was certain (“dead certain”) that the sound was of someone in real distress.
She told Biggie all of this in her email.
Biggie was most intrigued by the P.S.
“I am asking you to investigate this, because I firmly believe journalists hunt a story with more appetite than the police. And I know something is wrong. I have included the number of Walter Shaw, he is another local dog walker who has seen a lot going on in the park over the past few weeks. He can give you more information.”
Biggie read one line over and again.
“seen a lot going on in the park over the past few weeks.”
A trail to be followed. A thread to be pulled. A giant fucking question mark like a cliff-hanger at the end of a weekly drama series. But worse. More like an itch because, with a little digging, he might be able to find the answer himself.
He gave it about a minutes thought and then called Walter Shaw.
An old man’s voice, gruff from cigarettes, answered the phone. Biggie knew that sound. Words dry like they were being pulled across gravel. Shitty hacking cough. It took a minute dodging these sounds for Biggie to explain who he was and why he was calling. Then he waited another twenty seconds for an answer.
‘Meet me at the café on Tilgate Parade in an hour. I’ll buy the coffee,’ Walter said. The line went dead.
Biggie had heaved a sigh and rolled his eyes at the ceiling. Another old man with another dead end story. He hated that. But if Walter did in fact have a story, something huge, he could spend a little time and listen to the old man’s diatribe.
Besides, it beat the hell out of the story that Biggie was currently working on: The remodelling of Crawley’s civic centre.
And so off he went, driving his beat up Fiat Punto through the blustery winter afternoon to Tilgate Parade.
The café was small. Not much bigger than Biggie’s living room. They sold bread, baguettes, sandwiches, hot drinks and a few pretty good looking pastries. Biggie was eyeing some Eccles Cakes when Walter cane-tapped his way into the space, looked around like a badger sniffing the air outside its dirt hole. He laid eyes on Biggie, nodded to himself and walked over.
‘The reporter?’ he asked, by way of greeting.
‘For lack of a better profession.’ Biggie quipped, offering his hand.
‘One of the best professions there is,’ the old man replied, giving Biggie’s hand a firm shake. ‘You people find the truth. A good business.’
Biggie nodded. Shrugged.
‘I’ll get the coffees,’ Walter said.
‘No, no please—‘
‘Sit down. Gotta spend my pension on something.’
Biggie didn’t know what to say to that, stumped into silence by an old man’s frank, disarming speech. It was that same ‘care-for-nothing-anymore’ trait that lead to countless old men dropping their trousers and showing bear, crinkled arse at urinals across the lands.
When Walter came back he carried two cardboard cups of coffee. Black. Biggie blew the steam from the top of his and tentatively sipped. It was sweet, just how he liked it. A good guess from Walter.
‘I gotta meet my nephew this afternoon so I’ll be quick,’ Walter said. Biggie pulled out his notebook and pen.
‘On the record?’
‘Of course. Nothing to hide. And even if I did, not enough years left in me to care if I did,’ Walter said, before sipping from his own coffee. He smacked his lips in appreciation. Let out a little ‘ahhh’.
Biggie was again shocked into silence. Wondered what it was the old man suffered from or just how old he was but Walter didn’t offer anything after that and Biggie thought it rude to ask. Instead he just sat there, wisps of steam wicking from the mugs between them.
After a shuddering breath, the old man laid it all out. Biggie scribbled like a madman. He asked questions only when there was a lag in story. Offered no assumptions about what the sounds might be (that had a tendency to warp memories and feelings) and instead just let the man let it all out.
When he had unburdened himself of the information, Walter glanced at his watch, bade his farewells and left with the dignified shamble of the elderly, out the door, and down the parade of shops.
Biggie’s heart raced. He didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know who to take this information to. It was a mad story. An unbelievable one. This wasn’t something you took to the police. It was out of their jurisdiction – and probably their belief. Biggie’s own editor would likely laugh him out of the office if he took this in as a possible story for the establishment.
There was only one thing to do; go and see for himself.
And so he was here. Sitting in his beat-up jalopy and looking across the blanket of lights. Crawley blended into the dark mass of hills in the distance where Surrey bumped into South London. Biggie wondered if some of the lights belonged to the two northern towns of Horley and Redhill. Figured he didn’t really care either way. He knew he was only wondered on it because he was bored and so trying to entertainment himself in any way possible.
And with that realization, other thoughts crept through.
The old man had just talked shit. He really didn’t care if he had something crazy to say so had decided on just saying something crazy for the laughs. Biggie wondered if the old man might be at home now, chuckling over his Marks and Spencer microwave meal-for-one, when a flicker of movement in the rear-view mirror caught his eye.
Biggie turned in his seat to look through the rear window and clipped the lever for the windshield wipers. The dry rubber strained against the glass and let out an almighty screech. Biggie jumped, heart racing. He fumbled for the lever and clicked it off.
He chuckled at his own ineptitude and then swore at his own cowardice. Biggie turned again, slowly this time and looked out through the back window.
The car park was in darkness, the lights having been turned off at twelve along with the last of the visitors to the Smith and Western across the road at the top of Tilgate Park’s sprawling lawns. Nothing moved in the treeline. The shadows were still. Biggie guessed it was a deer or a fox.
Though he may have just chosen to believe that to calm himself down. Against Biggie’s will, Walter’s story came to mind.