Read It and Win — BREATHING WATER, CH. 1

August 7th, 2009

Three weeks before the book is unleashed on an unsuspecting world, here’s Chapter One of BREATHING WATER, preceded by the 30-second video promo that Shadoe Stevens produced for me.

Watch and read carefully, because there will be a quiz.  At the end of the chapter you’ll find a multiple-choice question.  I’ll be posting another chapter and another question once a week for the next two weeks.  At the end of the posting period, I’ll drop into a hat (or something) the names of the people who answered all three questions accurately, assuming that anyone plays that long.  The owners of the three names I draw will be sent free signed copies of the book, copies that will ultimately be worth, oh, ten to twelve dollars on eBay.

Okay?  Link to 30-second video, chapter, question.  Just respond with the answer and any enthusiastic comments you might like to make about the quality of the writing, the depth of the characterization, the vividness of the setting, or whatever else strikes you as praiseworthy.  You can criticize, too, and I won’t even hold it against you if I draw your name.

Here goes.



Pinch It

The man behind the desk is a dim shape framed by blinding light, a god emerging from the brilliance of infinity.  The god says, “Why not the bars?  You’re pretty enough.”

The girl has worked a finger into the ragged hole in the left knee of her jeans.  The knee got scraped when the two men grabbed her, and she avoids the raw flesh.  She raises a hand to shield her eyes so she can look at him, but the light is too bright.  “I can’t.  I tried for two nights.  I can’t.”

“You’ll get used to it.”  The god puts a foot on the desk. The foot is shielded from the light by the bulk of his body, and she can see that it is shod in a very thin, very pale loafer.  The sole is so shiny the shoe might never have been worn before.  The shoe probably cost more than the girl’s house.

The girl says, “I don’t want to get used to it.”  She shifts a few inches right on the couch, trying to avoid the light.

“It’s a lot of money.  Money you could send home.”

“Home is gone,” the girl says.

It’s a trifle, and he waves it away.  “Even better.  You could buy clothes, jewelry, a nice phone.  I could put you into a bar tonight.”

The girl just looks down and works her finger around inside the hole.  The skin around the scraped knee is farm-dark, as dark as the skin on her hand.

“Okay,” the man says.  “Up to you.”  He lights a cigarette, the lighter’s flame briefly revealing a hard face with small, thick-lidded eyes, broad nostrils, pitted skin, oiled hair.  Not a god, then, unless very well disguised.  He waves the smoke away, toward her.  The smoke catches the light to form a pale nimbus like the little clouds at which farmers aim prayers in the thin-dirt northeast, where the girl comes from.  “But this isn’t easy, either,” he says.

She pulls her head back slightly from the smoke.  “I don’t care.”

The man drags on the cigarette again and puts it out, only two puffs down.  Then he leans back in his chair, perilously close to the floor-to-ceiling window behind him.  “Don’t like the light, do you?  Don’t like to be looked at.  Must be a problem with a face like yours.  You’re worth looking at.”

The girl says, “Why do you sit there?  It’s not polite to make your visitors go blind.”

“I’m not a polite guy,” says the man behind the desk.  “But it’s not my fault.  I put my desk here before they silvered those windows.”   The building across Sathorn Road, a sea-green spire, has reflective coating on all its windows, creating eighteen stories of mirrors that catch the falling sun every evening.  “It’s fine in the morning,” he says. “It’s just now that it gets a little bright.”

“It’s rude.”

The man behind the desk says, “So fucking what?”  He pulls his foot off the desk and lets the back of his chair snap upright.  “You don’t like it, go somewhere else.”

The girl lowers her head.  After a moment, she says, “If I try to beg, I’ll just get dragged back here.”

The man sits motionless.  The light in the room dims slightly as the sun begins to drop behind the rooftops.  Then he says, “That’s right.”  He takes a new cigarette and puts it in his mouth.  “We get forty percent.  Pratunam.”

She tries to meet his eyes, but the reflections are still too bright.  “I’m sorry?”

“Pra . . . tu . . . nam,” he says, enunciating each syllable as though she is stupid.  “Don’t you even know where Pratunam is?”

She starts to shake her head and stops.  “I’ll find it.”

“You won’t have to find it.  You’ll be taken there.  You can’t just sit anywhere.  You’ll work the pavement we give you.  Move around, and you’ll probably get beat up, or even brought back here.”  He takes the cigarette out of his mouth, looks at it, and breaks it in half.  He drops the pieces irritably into the ashtray.

“Is it a good place?”

“Lots of tourists,” he says.  “I wouldn’t give it to you if you weren’t prrtty.”  He picks up the half of the cigarette with the filter on it, puts it in his mouth, and lights it.  Then he reaches under the desk and does something, and the girl hears the lock on the door snap closed.  “You want to do something nice for me?”

“No,” the girl says.  “If I wanted to do that, I’d work in the bar.”

“I could make you.”

“You could get a fingernail in your eye, too.”

The man regards her for a moment and then grunts.  The hand goes back under the desk and the lock clicks again.  “Aahhh, you’d probably be a dead fish anyway.”  He takes a deep drag and scrubs the tip of the cigarette against the bottom of the ashtry, scribbles something on a pad, rips off the page, and holds it out.  His eyes follow her as she gets up to take it.  “It’s an address,” he says.  “Go there tonight, you can sleep there.  We’ll pick you up at 6:30 in the morning.  You’ll work from seven to four, when the night girl takes over.”  He glances at a gold watch, as thin as a dime, on his right wrist.  In English, he says, “How’s your English?”

“Can talk some.”

“Can you say, ‘Please sir?  Please ma’am?  Hungry’?”

“Please, sir,” the girl says.  “Please, ma’am.”  A flush of color mounts her dark cheeks.  “Hungry.”

“Good,” the man says.  “Go away.”

She turns to go, and his phone buzzes.  He picks up the receiver.

“What?” he says.  Then he says to the girl, “Wait.”  Into the receiver, he says, “Good. Bring it in.”  A moment later an immaculately groomed young woman in a silk business suit comes in, carrying a bundle of rags.  She holds it away from her, her mouth pulled tight, as though are insects crawling on it.

“Give it to her,” the man says.  “And you,” he says, “don’t lose it, and don’t drop it.  These things don’t grow on trees.”

The young woman glances without interest at the girl in the torn jeans and hands the bundle to her.  The bundle is surprisingly heavy, and wet.

The girl opens one end, and a tiny face peers up at her.

“But . . .” she says.  “Wait.  This — this isn’t–“

“Just be careful with it,” the man says.  “Anything happens to it, and you’ll be working on your back for years.”

“But I can’t –“

“What’s the matter with you?  Don’t you have brothers and sisters?  Didn’t you spend half your life wiping noses?  Just carry it around on your hip or something.  Be a village girl again.”  To the woman in the suit, he says, “Give her some money and put it on the books.  What’s your name?” he asks the girl holding the baby.


“Buy some milk and some throw-away diapers.  A towel.  Wet-wipes.  Get a small bottle of whiskey and put a little in the milk at night to knock the baby out, or you won’t get any sleep.  Dip the corner of the towel in the milk and let it suck.  Get a blanket to sit on.  Got it?”

“I can’t keep this.”

“Don’t be silly.”  The man gets up, crosses the office, and opens the door, waving her out with his free hand.  “No foreigner can walk past a girl with a baby,” the man says.  “When there are foreign women around, pinch it behind the knee.  The crying is good for an extra ten, twenty baht.”

Dazed, holding the wet bundle away from her T-shirt, Da goes to the door.

“We’ll be watching you,” the man says.  “Sixty for you, forty for us.  Try to pocket anything, and we’ll know.  And then you won’t be happy at all.”

“I don’t steal,” Da says.

“Of course not.”  The man returns to his desk in the darkening office.  “And remember.  Pinch it.”

* * *

Four minutes later, Da is on the sidewalk, with two hundred fifty baht in her pocket and a wet baby in her arms.  She walks through the lengthening shadows at the aimless pace of someone with nowhere to go, someone listening to private voices.  Well-dressed men and women, just freed from the cubicles of Sathorn Road, push impatiently past her.

Da has carried a baby for as long as she can remember. The infant is a familiar weight in her arms.  She protects it instinctively by crossing her wrists underneath it, bringing her elbows close to her sides, and keeping her eyes directly in front of her so she won’t bump into something. In the village, she would have been looking for a snake, a stone in the road, a hole opened up by rain.  Here, she doesn’t know what she’s looking for.

But she’s so occupied in looking for it that she doesn’t notice the dirty, ragged, long-haired boy who pushes by her with the farang man in tow, doesn’t see him turn to follow her with his eyes fixed on the damp bundle pressed to her chest, watching her as though nothing in the world is more interesting.

Question: What is the man behind the desk’s occupation? (a) Politician  (b) Gangster  (c) Child welfare worker

27 Responses to “Read It and Win — BREATHING WATER, CH. 1”

  1. Greg Says:

    Hmm, it could easily be a politician but I’ll go with Gangster.

    Great start to the story! Vivid imagery: the god emerging from the light, his shiny shoes worth a small fortune, his brutish inhumanity towards the girl.
    I’m in the room and hating the bad guy.

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Greg, and thanks for the unsolicited praise.

    Obviously, I can’t say whether that’s the correct answer, but it’s certainly an educated deduction. I was going to add another possible answer, (d) Chairman of the Republican National Committee, but who am I to offend potential book buyers?

    Thanks for weighing in first.

  3. fairyhedgehog Says:

    Let’s see. Child welfare worker. Possibly.

    OK, he’s a gangster. This is almost too vivid for me. Already I care about Da and want her to be safe but I can’t see any way she can be.

  4. Sammy Says:

    Gangster, of course. Nice opening scene sets the mood. One page into the chapter, I’m back in Thailand. Already met two characters I care about, Da in a good way, Mr-thin-loafers in not-so-good a way. Do we get to see bad things happen to this guy later? Please?

    Child beggars in the streets were common in Manila back in the 80s (and may still be today, for all I know). Always suspected some sort of syndicate behind them.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Gee — so far everyone’s picking the same answer. Either I made the question too easy or it’s a cunning trap, muhaaahaaahaaa. (I actually have an obnoxious inner child, whom my wife has named Sparky, who laughs like that.)

    fairyhedgehog, welcome back, and thanks for the “too vivid” part. This isn’t even moving yet, and there’s much more vivid material in the chute. But it all ends well, or at least most of it does.

    This chapter and the one that follows it set into motion one of the book’s three stories, which come together (persuasively, I hope) about 60% of the way through, when things begin to get really bumpy. Poke doesn’t make an entrance until Chapter Three, when two more principal characters are also introduced.

    Sammy, child beggars remain an effective purse-opener in Thailand and in the Philippines. And you’re right — there is ALWAYS a syndicate between them, if only to keep them from killing each other over good begging spots or congregating in such numbers that they chase the foreigners away. And Wichat, who’s the gangster, has had much better weeks than the one that’s in front of him.

    Good Lord, my Captcha is “mil islamics.”

  6. Zelda Says:

    I agree with the others – gangster. How awful life must be for these poor children. The book hasn’t even begun and I am already worried about that little girl and that baby. Your characters are SO real. And I could feel the discomfort of that bright light.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Zelda, and don’t worry yet. They’ve got many, many hurdles to clear in the next 350 pages. I can’t promise they both clear all of them, but that’s why we keep reading (I hope). Thanks so much for the nice words about the characters. I had no idea that Da and the baby (whom she later names Peep) were coming when I sat down to write this book, but there they were, and I let them lead me into the story that eventually turned out to be a little less than half of the novel.

    Maybe some day I’ll write the book I think I’m going to write.

    And okay, so I made the question too easy. But they’ll get harder as we go along.

  8. Rachel Brady Says:

    I thought he was a corrupt cop. Then that wasn’t a choice. So I decided a corrupt child welfare worker instead. Then I thought maybe you were being tricky and it was really B *and* C. But finally I saw the above posts and just smiled.

    Great characters as usual. I already feel sorry for Da and the baby. 🙁 As long as it’s in the safety of a book, criminal underworld players are always intriguing.

  9. Walt Pascoe Says:

    Now that I’ve dawdled long enough to let all the smart kids answer the question… Yeah Gangster…thats it 🙂
    You had me at : The god says, “Why not the bars? You’re pretty enough.”
    Amazing trailer. Really looking forward to reading the book, Tim.

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Walt — that’s my favorite early line in the scene, and maybe my favorite, period.

    The trailer, as much as I’d like to take total credit for it, reflects the genius of a guy named Shadoe Stevens, maybe my oldest friend (can’t think of any who are older, yuck yuck), who actually put it together. There’s another one, about power, but the opening visual isn’t as good as the photo of the kid that opens this one.

    You guys are all going to be so surprised when you find out what the REAL answer is.

  11. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Hmmm…I thought he was a cop.
    But that’s not an option.

    Since there’s a chance she’ll “get beaten up or be brought back here”, I’ll go with child welfare worker.

    I’m counting the days to the release!

  12. Raymond Ng Says:

    Having lived in the Philippines, this opening is reminiscent of the awful reality of street children panhandlers. My answer is gangster (lorded over by politician).

  13. Helen Kiker Says:

    This is harder than I expected – could be any one of the 3 choices but I will say gangster.

    I must say that after reading the first chapter there is no way that I will stop reading the additional chapters. You really can hook the reader.

    I did like the trailer also & can see why you get a movie deal.

  14. Helen Kiker Says:

    I just watched the trailer again & see that it is a book promo. I was so wrapped up in the trailer that I thought it was for a movie. Hope that you will get a movie deal out of the book. Going back now for a third look at the trailer.

    The man behind the desk could be a gangster who got a political appointment to the child welfare department. Are you just toying with us?

  15. Sean Bunzick Says:

    Well, one of the possibilities I’m going to offer is that the man behind the desk is a former Buddhist abbot who has decided to turn his life from the Four Noble Truths and pursue profit via whatever means he feels he must.
    Yes, it IS a bit of a stretch but then again, so too is Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia for that matter. Quite often–both in real life and in wonderful fiction like Tim’s–you find such completely unexpected realities where you least thought you would. I know I do it in many of my own tales;-)
    Another “usual suspect” could be a former member of the Royal Thai Army or any other military organization within the kingdom (this also includes the Border Patrol Police); I’ve seen some very interesting things along the Thai-Burmese border courtesy of these folks.
    Okay, sticking with the choices offered, how about this: a politician who is ALSO a gangster? Bangkok crawls with so many of them.
    We’ll see, right?

  16. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Cynthia, so glad you’ve forgiven me for not fitting Vegas into the tour. I was fascinated by your thought processes as you worked your way through to the answer. (Of course, I know what he is, so I have an unfair advantage.)

    Hi, Raymond, and welcome — Yes, the Philippines and Thailand have a lot in common, including exploitation of the poor by the rich. And child beggars are a shame throughout the emerging world.

    Hello, Helen — always nice to see someone new, and glad to hear you say that chapter one makes you want to read the rest of the book. You’ll be able to read chapters two and three here in no time, each with its own shiny question. And I’m also happy the trailer seemed like a movie trailer, ’cause that’s what we were trying for. And how could you possibly suspect I’m toying with you — after such a brilliant guess?

    Sean Bunzick is himself the author of a series about Thailand and, like me, under the enchantment of what one reviewer of BREATHING WATER called “the best worst city in the world.” And as much as I respect your grounding in all things Thai, Sean, I have to say that unfortunately, I didn’t think of the wayward abbot idea. Wish I had.

    Also interested in the trend toward politician, or at least politician/gangster or politician supervised by a gangster, because BREATHING WATER is essentially a political novel.

    Damn, this is fun. I’m upping the number of give-away books to five.

  17. Brynne Sissom Says:

    Gangster/Senator/Representative/what difference does it make? Gangster covers corrupt cop, politician, Corrupt Child Welfare Officer. I’ll go with child welfare worker on the take; and I’ll wager that the dirty(again!) young fellow with the farang is Superman with Poke in tow. Superman would have sharp street awareness like that.

  18. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, Brynne, you’re half-right. Or maybe one-third right. Don’t be afraid of the obvious guess re: the guy behind the desk. Of course, as you point out, a child welfare worker on the take would also be a gang — whoops, forget I said that.

    See you in Dallas.

  19. Phil Hanson Says:

    Having had both the honor and the privilege of being a recipient of a “Breathing Water” ARC, which I’ve read twice, I have an unfair advantage, so I won’t be entering your contest.

    You can keep your editor, Tim. Definitely not an idiot. The change made to your opening sentence was so minor that most readers wouldn’t notice it, even if they knew what to look for. The important thing is that the essence of the opening sentence is retained, thus keeping it on track to become one of the best fiction openings in the history of literature. Better, even, than “Once upon a time . . ..”

    Let me know the day, time and place of your book tour’s arrival in Portland as soon as your schedule is confirmed (it’s the one event of the year I don’t want to miss). I’m looking forward to meeting you in person, and I guarantee you at least three book sales.

  20. Laurie Brown Says:

    I’m afraid that it’s child welfare worker, and that’s the beginning of the introduction to Bangkok. Find them all jobs, get them off the street. I feel dropped into the edge of the story and I definitely want to read more. I was looking for more setting but I think that in the first chapter we get: 1) the child welfare worker, and 2) “In the village, she would have been looking for a snake, a stone in the road, a hole opened up by rain. ” That’s cool.

  21. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    I just realized that I could be DONE with my Christmas shopping in just THREE weeks! Well, less than three weeks now. And the money I save by buying everyone on my list a copy of Breathing Water could possibly finance a trip to a tour city…..Let me click on google maps and start making some plans…..

    my captcha: and newcomers

  22. Bob Mueller Says:

    Cindy’s Mueller’s husband says gangster – scum of the Bangkok back alley’s – just like in Korea ….. looking forward to the rest of the story.

  23. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Phil — first, thanks for the great review. (Phil wrote a sensational online review, which I’ll be linking to just after pub date. And I’ll accept the compliment on my editor. And, of course, glad to hear the opening is on a par with “Once upon a time.” How about “Call me Ishmael.”

    Portland is Wednesday, September 30 at 7 PM at Murder By the Book on S. Hawthorne. Looking forward to seeing you there.

    Hi, Lauri, and welcome. You have been dropped into the edge of the story, but it’s also the beginning of one of the four main plot strands that make up the book. Frankly, when I sat down to start writing, I had no idea that Da and the gangster (whose name is Wichat) were coming, and I didn’t know what they had to do with the book I thought I was writing until the baby (whom Da will later name Peep) appeared in the scene. Once I’d written a couple of hundred pages, I went back and played with different openings but always came back to this one. And there’s setting galore coming in the book — in fact, you’ll get some of it in the next chapter, which will probably be online by the time you read this.

    Cynthia has a GREAT idea — BREATHING WATER FOR CHRISTMAS. I will sign any copy any of yoi buys as a Christmas present. If you buy two or more, I’ll show up on Christmas morning and deliver it. For bulk purchases, I’ll enter via the chimney.

    Bob — So glad to hear from you, with a correct guess. I was worrying about Cynthia. Speaking of Korea, have you read any or Martin Limon’s mysteries about a couple of US military cops in postwar Korea? Terrific books.

  24. Susan Says:

    Gangster. Great opening. It grabs you in the heart.

  25. Sarah Says:

    Gangster Pimp of course. Wonderful description of the Big Guy. Wonderful sentences about the sky and how the boy sees it – how he perceives the alley. Everything about him. I’m a slow reader and am a bit stupid about the card game because I have to figure out what is going on. But I love everything written – the sugar melted on a doughnut. The Big Guy’s voice and finger and ….. I am so stupid! A ringer is what?

  26. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Sarah — great to hear from you, and you’re right. He’s a gangster and a pimp. And a ringer is just someone who’s not who he’s pretending to be. It’s confidence-game slang, so it’s probably just as well you didn’t know it.

  27. Sarah Says:

    I came back to erase my stupid admitting that I needed to see what was going on in the card game. I understand completely now and am on chapter 10. Such evocative writing. So great for me to “see” and experience the places and people thru your descriptions. What great writing. Take care and angels wings above you on the book tour.

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