“What do you think, Daniel?”
I peered through Connie’s binoculars and adjusted the viewfinder. From this angle all I could see was the back of a bald man sitting on a wooden bench facing the sea. “How long has he been there?”
“An hour,” she said. “Fifty minutes too long in my book, and he’s hardly moved the whole time.”
“He could just be waiting for someone.” The lines around her mouth tightened. Maybe her crippling arthritis was causing her grief? No, it was more than that. She was close to tears. Bad memories? She’d mentioned some anniversary this morning but hadn’t gone into details.
She sighed. “If he was expecting someone, you think he’d glance around whenever a car pulled up or check his watch, but he hasn’t done either.”
“Do you want me to go down?”
Connie took the binoculars from me and winced as she settled back in her wheelchair. “If you’re not too busy…. He might just be waiting ’til it gets dark, and it’s nearly five p.m. now.”
“Okay. I’ll go get changed.” It wasn’t as if I had anything else to do. Saturday evenings had been nonevents ever since I’d told two-timing Timothy to go suck his own dick, so tonight’s highly anticipated entertainment had been staying home and playing the latest version of “Street Fighter” on the Xbox. I ran down the steps to my ground-floor, one-bedroom apartment and pulled off my red “I’m only two people short of a Ménage à Trois” T-shirt. Unfortunately that and my carefully frayed designer jeans wouldn’t suit the part I needed to play.
After switching to tan flared dress pants, dark brown polyester button-up shirt, and matching dark brown dress shoes, I grabbed my camera bag, cell phone, and wallet and headed out the door. Normally I wouldn’t be seen dead in gear like that, but the majority of Asian tourists dressed conservatively, so if I wanted to pretend that I was one, I needed to do the same. My long ponytail might look out of place, but no way was I cutting that off. Eccentric Chinese geek was the best description Connie and I could come up with to describe my disguise.
For once the sound of air brakes being applied was music to my ears. Most mornings I felt like wringing the bus drivers’ necks as they pulled up and disrupted my beauty sleep. But that was what I’d learned to deal with ever since moving into the old brick house opposite one of Sydney’s popular tourist destinations.
My cell phone vibrated as I waited for a break in the traffic. I checked the ID—Connie.
“Perfect timing, Daniel. You should be able to watch him without being noticed. He’ll just think you’re part of the tour group.”
Most of the dismounting passengers were honeymoon couples in their midtwenties. I snorted. I’d blend in with this lot, no sweat. They were from Korea, but most Australians wouldn’t detect the difference.
After inserting the earpiece, I merged with the tourists. If I remained silent, everyone would assume I was listening to an MP3 player.
Connie’s familiar tinkling laughter followed. “From up here you all look like fish schooling around their leader.”
I could see what she meant. The tourists were following the guide around as he pointed out the city skyline and the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge visible behind a distant headland. “Stand near the ones having their photos taken against the cliff edge railing,” she said. “You should be able to see the man better from there.”
I didn’t need to check the upstairs window to know her binoculars were trained on me. We had some prearranged hand signals. A quick swipe across the bottom of my nose was a no, rubbing my jaw meant yes, and scratching my head indicated “I don’t know” or maybe.
To make sure I didn’t look like a flea-ridden monkey, she’d worked out the best way to phrase her questions in our one-sided conversation.
I did what she suggested and caught my first front-on glimpse of the target. He was ignoring the exotic specimens of Foreign touristae, as Connie liked to call them, and he hadn’t spotted me. Good. My cover was still working.
A deep scowl creased his forehead, and his hunched shoulders and tense posture screamed go away.
“How old is he?” Connie asked. “Under twenty?”
Ever since I’d started helping her, I’d found the younger ones much easier to approach. They usually succumbed to my lures after a few minutes of casual chatting, allowing me to reel them in without too much difficulty, particularly those who were gay. Been there, done that, I’d tell them. After you realize in your mid-teens that you fancy the quarterbacks more than the cheerleaders, your future can seem pretty fucked up.
I’d managed to convince a few desperate kids to hang on to life and talk to their parents. Pity I’d never managed to do the latter. My parents still didn’t accept my sexuality. In the end flight had been easier than fight.
No, this guy was definitely older than twenty. I gave my nose a quick swipe.
“Over thirty?” she asked.
Hard to tell. He had those high cheekbones that looked good into old age; plus he’d shaved off all his hair. Camouflaging early-onset baldness, or a fashion statement? I scratched my head.
I swiped my nose again. Definitely not, thank goodness. The older ones were the hardest to help. So many triggers could send them over the edge, literally. They were also more wary of my motive for speaking to them.
“What do you think, Daniel? Was I right to be worried?”
The all-important question—was the guy on the seat contemplating suicide?
I scratched my head. If she was right, my task was to make a connection, a line: linking the target to life. But what would make a guy like him take such a drastic step?
Connie started with the first of our standard questions. It helped to get some idea of motive first. “Could he be having money problems?” she asked.
I checked my target out while around me, couples and groups lined up to have their photos taken against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean.
Tight-fitting, denim-clad legs were stretched out straight in front, and his tan R.M. Williams elastic-side boots were crossed at the ankles like a fish’s tail. His body filled out his jeans to perfection. Hm, not bad. I gave myself a mental slap over the wrists. Down, boy. You’re supposed to be checking out the clothes, not what’s inside them. Okay, they were neat but not expensive. Somehow I couldn’t imagine him worrying about possessions. I wiped my nose.
“Any sign of a wedding ring?”
After switching to my zoom lens, I turned to capture the view back up the hill. Now I could check the guy out without being too obvious.
His crossed arms emphasized the bulge of his biceps as they strained against his black T-shirt. His left hand was exposed, meaning the chances he was left-handed were high. I rubbed my jaw, then wiped my nose. A pale circle on his third finger indicated he’d worn a ring for a long period of time but not recently, because the faded section nearly blended with his tan. Drat, the guy must be straight.
“He was married, but not now,” she said.
I rubbed my jaw again. She snorted, and I grinned. We were getting good at this.
“Does he look… sick?”
Sick? Yeah, as in totally sick, dude. The guy could have posed for one of those Sexy Bad Boy apps on Facebook. If he was in the terminal stages of some incurable illness, there certainly weren’t any symptoms showing. I wiped my nose.
“What else might bring him here? Depression?”
Connie and I had discussed this over dinner one night, soon after I started acting as her assistant. “How would I be able to tell?” I’d asked her. Although she wasn’t a psychiatrist, she had been trained as a volunteer counselor for Lifeline.
“You can’t,” she’d replied. “Often they hide the condition from their partners and family. All you can do is encourage them to talk, and once they do, you have to listen to what they’re really saying. The second you feel concerned, signal me so I can contact Emergency Services.”
I scratched my head as I stared at the guy. Most people suffered from depression in one form or another over time. Connie dealt with hers by volunteering for different charities—things she could do from home, such as making regular phone calls to elderly people who lived alone to ensure they were okay and, of course, watching the cliff top.
When life got me down, I buried myself in my work or blew the crap out of aliens or thugs in my computer games. I would have preferred sex, but ever since I’d broken up with Timothy, that had been virtually nonexistent.
The guide came close to the railing. Even though I couldn’t speak Korean, I knew what he was talking about. This stretch of coastline with its sheer hundred-foot cliffs was notorious because of all the suicides and murders over the years. Despite the fact that the edge was fenced along its entire length and had sections covered by 24-hour CCTV, desperate people still found their way over or around the barrier.
The tourists craned their necks to see. From our high vantage point, the waves surging below didn’t seem large, but they would hit the jagged rocks at the bottom and send spray high in the air before the shattered droplets fell like glistening diamonds. Sandstone may be soft and quick to erode, but for anybody thrown against its unforgiving surface, whether by the force of a pounding wave or falling, the result was the same.
Why had he stayed here so long? He didn’t fit the profile. No signs of nervousness or the effects of drugs or alcohol. Just a typical Aussie: confident, self-assured. Most I’d met were obsessed with football of one kind or another and cricket. Two subjects I found dead boring.
The chatter around me increased, so I took the opportunity to talk to Connie. “I don’t think I can do this. This guy’s way out of my league.”
“Nonsense, Daniel, stop being so negative. He’s just a man, same as you are. Look out. The tour party’s going. Talk to him. See if you can work out what his intentions are. If you want to land a big fish, be prepared for a duel, but you can do it. Patience and persistence are all you need.” She ended the call, and I turned back to survey my target.
Ever since I’d arrived, the slight scowl hadn’t left his face, but as soon as the bus left, his expression changed. The annoyance disappeared to be replaced by bleakness, as if something vital had broken inside and life had no purpose anymore.
Suddenly I felt as if someone had punched me in the gut. This guy might have been pretending to be in control, but inside he must be hurting like crazy. The other frequent trigger for jumping was a broken heart. Was that the problem? Had he loved someone so much that losing them made life no longer worth living?
I turned to stare out to sea. A stiff easterly wind had whipped up whitecaps on the choppy swell, but apart from a container ship in the distance, the ocean was empty. You could so easily lose yourself in the vast expanse. Was he thinking the same thing? Had he stood here earlier and glanced over the edge at the crashing waves below?
My movement must have attracted his attention, for when I turned to check on him, he glared at me briefly before turning away. I ignored him, walked farther along the fence line, and leaned over. Areas covered by water at high tide had a slimy, dark green tinge, but the wind-scoured surface of the rest had the beautiful orange, yellow, and pale gray hues so typical of Sydney sandstone. Even though the clifftop had such a terrible reputation, I never tired of finding the beauty here. While gathering courage to make the approach, I took a couple more shots.
Okay, Dannii, you’ve set the scene…. I spun around with my camera ready. He was watching me now, almost as if he could see me as clearly as I could see him, although I knew most of my face would be hidden.
What sort of bait would he respond to?
I let the SLR digital camera fall onto its neck strap and slowly walked over until I stood ten feet away. Not close enough to make him uncomfortable, but near enough to make contact.
I opened my mouth to begin speaking in my usual fake-accented broken English, but something in his expression made me pause. His eyes seemed to bore right into me, exposing everything inside. I changed my mind and spoke in my normal voice.
“’Scuse me. Someone told me there’s a lighthouse around here. Is it very far?”
His brows rose, and I stifled a smile. My American accent often had that effect, especially when someone had me pegged as an Asian tourist.
“No.” After that initial glance of surprise, he’d dropped his gaze. I could hear air passing through his nose as his breathing grew shallow, impatient.
The quiet type, huh? If I was going to make that connection and lead him away from the vicinity of the cliff, I needed to get him talking, to address me instead of his boots. “No… there isn’t a lighthouse?” I asked. “Or no… it’s not far?”
He snorted. “Yes, there is a lighthouse, and no, it isn’t far.”
“Oh.” Still not biting. “How far is not far?”
He let out a deep sigh that almost rivaled the air brakes on the bus. “About a kilometer.” He jerked his head, indicating the direction.
Each time after he spoke, he switched his gaze back to his boots.
“A kilometer? I’m sorry. I just can’t seem to get a handle on all these Aussie measurements. How long would it take to walk there?”
He coolly assessed me, starting at my head and ending at my feet. “You’d probably manage it in ten minutes.”
Wow, settle down, Dannii, he’s just looking at you. “Great, it’s not far, then.”
The toe of his boot started tapping a slow, deliberate beat. Getting to you, am I, buddy? Good. If he thought I’d give up that easily, he had another think coming. “You see, I have a problem. I need someone to take my picture with the lighthouse in the background. I’ve tried the old hold-the-camera-in-front-point-and-click method, hoping for the best, but I always end up with half my head cut off. Maybe I should have bought a simpler camera.”
He flashed a glance of annoyance at my Pentax. Strange reaction.
“Why didn’t you get your mates on the bus to help you?”
“I’m not with them. Just seeing the sights on my own. Anyway, I don’t speak Korean.” I didn’t move and kept my most clueless smile pasted on my face.
He was handsome enough when he scowled. What would he be like if he smiled? The wedding-ring mark suggested he wasn’t gay, or was he? His gaze had lingered on my body during the tip-to-toe scan. Almost appreciative.
I ignored his obvious reluctance to become involved. This first connection was always the hardest. “My mom has this thing about me and lighthouses. If there’s one around, I have to have my photo taken. She’s got a picture of me standing at Dunnet Head, the extreme northern tip in Scotland, and lots of others: Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia, Cape Foulwind in New Zealand. I need one in Sydney to add to the collection.”
This time he actually looked at my face. I’m good at keeping my thoughts hidden. The speculation in his gaze showed he was probably asking himself, Is he a bullshit artist? Does he still live with his mother? Has he really been to these places?
I could almost tell what he thought the answers would be. Yes, yes, and maybe.
He was dead wrong. They were yes, no, and no.