Thunder rumbled overhead as Beaumont Whitley sat reclined in his chair, enjoying a pipe and a good book. Glancing up, he noticed a shadowed figure creep past the window. Beaumont closed the novel and set his Meerschaum aside. Would it be a man tonight? A woman? The people varied, but the planned end remained the same.
Beaumont shuffled to the back door, cane in hand, and grabbed a slicker off the hook. He stepped out and felt gusts of downpour drive him back. “Have to be careful,” he reminded himself. The rocky path to the cliff could be slick.
“Excuse me?” Beaumont called. “Are you okay?”
His voice drowned in the storm and the figure continued down the path. Beaumont pulled a small flashlight from the slicker’s pocket, washing the uneven trail in rain-dimmed light. The stranger turned to see the source and Beaumont identified the figure as a man.
“Hello? Can I interest you in a cup of tea? It’s a bit nasty to be out tonight.”
The man put his hand to his ear and shook his head. I can’t hear you.
Beaumont pulled his hood tight and stepped onto the path. His foot slipped on a rock and he recovered as his cane found purchase.
“Please, I need to speak to you.”
The figure proceeded, moving beyond the flashlight’s reach. Beaumont scanned desperately and found the dark form at the cliff edge. “Need to hurry,” he told himself. His hip ached and his arthritic knee groaned in protest.
“Hold on. I’ll be right there. Wait, please.”
The figure made no sign of acknowledgment but paused at the precipice. Beaumont fumbled, edging near the cliff. “Excuse me? Are you all right?”
A sullen voice cut through the storm. “Am I all right? It’s an interesting question. Is anyone truly all right? We’re all broken in our own ways, aren’t we?”
“I s’pose we are. In our own ways,” Beaumont said. “Why don’t you come inside, friend? I’ll put on some tea and you can tell me what’s bothering you. The cliff isn’t going anywhere.”
“I’m not one to be saved, Mr. Whitley,” the figure replied. “I know what you do, and I admire you, but you’ve got the wrong man this time. Go inside. Have your tea, I won’t be long.”
Beaumont startled at the man’s use of his name, but it wasn’t altogether surprising. The East Cairo Times ran a story on him last year. They called him the cliff angel.
“Did you consider, possibly, that you chose this spot because of me?” Beaumont asked. “Maybe you wanted to be saved.”
The man choked an anguished laugh. “Mr. Whitley, I absolutely chose this spot because of you, but not to be saved. I read the article. I know why you bought Cliff House. Your wife jumped from these rocks and there was no one to save her — no one to talk her down. You bought this place to be the one — the last bastion for the damned. Mr. Whitley, as I said, I admire you. I really do. But believe me, I’m not worth saving. I deserve to die.”
“Nobody deserves to die,” Beaumont said, inching closer. “Everyone has hard times, but those aren’t forever. Why don’t you come in? Have some tea. I’m a good listener.”
“Your wife never left a note, did she, Mr. Whitley?”
Ice shivered up Beaumont’s spine. Lenore hadn’t left a note. Her easel with the painting of the gorge was found atop the cliff, and investigators deemed her death a suicide. Beaumont raised the flashlight and found the drenched man staring through the rain. He was middle aged, with morose sunken eyes.
The cane shook beneath Beaumont’s hand. “Why would you ask about my wife?”
“I killed her, Mr. Whitley,” the man said, voice catching. “I didn’t mean to. It just — happened. I saw her while I was out hiking. She was painting a picture. I must have startled her and her feet tangled. I could have saved her — there was a moment. I could have gotten to her, but I froze. I watched her fall. I got scared and I ran.”
Beaumont’s fingers numbed. The flashlight rolled from his grip and tumbled over the cliff. He lunged, cane raised, and felt his knee give as his foot slipped, sending him sprawling to the edge. His feet flailed over, finding empty air, and his chest dropped below the precipice, yet somehow, he didn’t fall.
Beaumont looked up and found the stranger’s horrified eyes. The man had caught the cane and was straining to keep a grip as the wet wood inched through his fingers.
“Hold on,” the man pleaded. His feet slid on wet rocks and he struggled to find purchase. “I’ve got you. Just hold on.”
“Let me go,” Beaumont yelled, “before I drag us both over.”
Lightning flashed revealing the man’s agonized face as he struggled to hold the slippery cane. “I can’t, Mr. Whitley. I didn’t want this — not any of this. I should have saved her. If you die too — I can’t. I can’t.”
Beaumont’s face turned peaceful as the rain washed over him. “You can,” he shouted. “I’m going to give you something — my last request and your penance.”
The East Cairo Times ran a story about the cliff angel who died trying to save the life of another. The whole town mourned Beaumont’s passing, no one more than Richard Solomon. Investigators took weeks before declaring Beaumont’s death an accident, but once they did, the bank put Cliff House up for sale. Richard made a cash offer.
He opened the door to Cliff House, balancing a chair and a teapot in his opposite hand. He placed his new house keys and the teapot on the counter and set the chair by the window. Settling into the seat, he struck a match, drawing on a Meerschaum. He cracked a book and watched the cliff trail. My last request and your penance. Richard’s vigil had begun.
Robert L. Perrine is the author of The Bookshop and the Junglest, as well as many short stories. He lives in central Oregon and can usually be found with his furry companion, Pocket. He also acts in the local community theater.