Authors: Brett Battles
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Contemporary Fiction, #Literary, #Mystery, #philippines, #Tragedy, #bar girls
THE PULL OF
Jay Bradley thought he could leave the Philippines behind. But though he’s started a new life, with a woman he loves, he’s still tormented by questions from his past.
He returns to Angeles City where he once worked as the papasan watching over his bargirls. On the surface he’s there to sell his stake in a bar on the notorious Fields Avenue. In reality he’s come back to find Isabel—one of his old dancers, and the only person who can answer his questions, and quiet his demons.
Because death is seldom an ending, and almost always haunts those left behind for years.
Other Works by Brett Battles available on Kindle:
The Jonathan Quinn Thrillers
The Logan Harper Thrillers
The Project Eden Thrillers
EXIT NINE – coming Fall 2011
For Younger Readers
The Mr. Trouble Series
THE PULL OF
Table of Contents
Some stories call out to you, wanting to be told. THE PULL OF GRAVITY is just such a story for me. It has been with me for a long time. I actually finished the original draft just as my novel THE CLEANER was being picked by a publisher. In fact, since GRAVITY is not a typical thriller, it was THE CLEANER and Jonathan Quinn’s success that kept me from finishing it for so long. But in the years since, I’ve revised it on and off, tweaking and polishing it.
What’s interesting is that the structure I set up at the beginning hasn’t changed at all, and, if I’m not mistaken, almost all the scenes that original yelled at me to be written down are still here. Earlier this year, I pulled the manuscript out again and put in some extensive rewrites, getting it to the point where I always wanted it to be. Now I’m excited to share it with you.
THE PULL OF GRAVITY takes place in a location that most of us are not familiar with, that, perhaps, may make some readers feel uncomfortable. But isn’t that what reading is all about? Exploring the unknown. I think so. Ultimately, though, this is a story we can all understand—of love, of loss, and even of redemption.
I hope you enjoy it.
Los Angeles, California
I knew and liked Brett Battles before I read him, and that made me nervous.
The first time you read someone you like, it's always a slightly uneasy experience. What if it's awful? What if this really wonderful person has written an unreadable book?
But Brett, who's one of the best people I know, is also one of the best writers I know. The Quinn books are the model of the modern global thriller, and Logan Harper rocks one hundred percent. But what Brett has given us here is a different kind of thriller—a thriller of the heart.
The Pull of Gravity
isn't global in the geographic sense—it takes place within a relatively small physical area. But it explores the hearts of its characters exhaustively, and Brett has chosen an especially rich setting for his story: an Asian go-go bar, where love is always a counterfeit until, suddenly, it isn't. Bars like these are so densely packed with stories that they practically have to stand on each other's shoulders.
This is an environment I know about and have written about, and I've never seen it brought to life with more accuracy, compassion, and understanding than it is in
The Pull of Gravity.
I think you're going to love this book.
I couldn’t help feeling a sense of failure. On the surface, I’d accomplished what I’d come back to the Philippines to do. The sale of my stake in a bar in Angeles City had been finalized three days ago. Sure, the money wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped, but when is it ever? I was just glad to get it over with. With the bar sold, presumably my last tie to the Philippines was gone.
But Nicky Valenti, one of my ex-pat friends who still lived there, said something the night before I was supposed to leave Angeles and the islands forever that changed my plans. “I hear Isabel’s on Boracay,” he told me. That was it. One small nugget dropped into a larger conversation about nothing. I didn’t ask who he heard this from, or even if the information was reliable.
The truth was, in the few days I’d been back in Angeles, I’d found myself glancing into the faces of the girls as they passed me on the street, wondering if I might spot Isabel Reyes. When I didn’t, I felt a sense of relief. Three years earlier, she’d returned to her home province. Maybe, just maybe, she’d stayed. It would have been the best thing for her. But if Nicky was right, she hadn’t stayed. Instead, she’d come back to the life.
It was the money, most likely. Or perhaps life back home had become unbearable. Probably both. Whatever the reason, my heart sank a little knowing she was working again. Yet, selfishly, I couldn’t also help but feel that maybe I’d be able to find the answers to the questions that still plagued me, and that the memories I lived with every day might finally be put to rest.
If Isabel was on Boracay Island, I had to find her.
After I said goodbye to Nicky, I went back to my hotel room and made a call to Bangkok.
“I need to stay a little longer,” I said into my cell phone. “A few days. Maybe a week at most.”
“Of course,” Natt told me. She didn’t sound surprised.
When I was through explaining to her what had transpired while I was in Angeles, she said, “Take as long as you need. It’s okay.”
“You know I have to do this,” I said.
“I know. I want you to. Don’t worry about me.”
“I always worry about you.”
“I know that, too.” I could almost hear her smiling through the phone.
Phom rak khun,
” I said.
“I love you, too.”
• • •
I left the following morning for Boracay.
For the next three days I looked for Isabel without success. Though the island wasn’t that large, there were plenty of opportunities for us to miss each other. My search could have gone on for weeks, and the results would have been the same, but I just couldn’t bring myself to give up. Not yet.
Two more days, I decided. If I couldn’t find her by then, I’d know it just wasn’t meant to be.
A day and a half later I was tired and depressed and annoyed at my continued failure. Instead of searching the streets again, I decided I needed a break and went for a quick dip in the ocean. The water was warm and inviting, and I felt my stress drop a notch. I swam for twenty minutes, then stretched out on the beach, and absently flipped through the pages of a magazine I’d taken from my hotel. My mind finally began to accept that it was time to stop this fruitless search and go home.
I guess that was why, as I watched the beautiful girl walk down the shore toward me, that I didn’t realize it was Isabel until she walked past.
An avalanche of memories cascaded through my mind. Isabel at the bar. Isabel, Larry and I on a shopping trip to Manila. Larry and I playing pool down at The Eight Ball.
By the time I recovered, she’d picked a spot not twenty feet away and laid out a towel. She wasn’t alone, of course. There was a guy with her, another member of the Fat White Guys Brigade. He put his towel on the beach next to hers. Instead of sitting, he kind of half fell on his ass, grunting loudly as he did. When he talked to her, I couldn’t make out the words but I detected an accent. German, maybe, or Dutch.
After a few minutes, Isabel, lying on her stomach with her chin propped up on her hands, began casually looking around the beach. No doubt she was checking to see if there was anyone around she knew. Her eyes paused on me for a second. I probably looked vaguely familiar, but when she couldn’t place me, she continued on.
It wasn’t surprising. We hadn’t seen each other since she left Angeles. Back then, I was also a member of the brigade. The Jay Bradley that Isabel knew was an obese slob who thought he was “just a little heavy.” His hair was a brown bush that always needed a trim. Sometimes he shaved, sometimes he didn’t. And then there was his uniform: dark blue cargo shorts that reached below his knees, and a T-shirt, either black or maroon. That former Jay had a dozen T-shirts of each color and three pairs of the shorts.
That was Philippine Jay. Three years gone and good riddance.
By the time Isabel glanced at me that afternoon, I’d lost nearly eighty pounds. My hair was shorter, too. Close-cropped and a hell of a lot more gray. Yet even with the gray, I looked younger. I’d been working out, and, for the first time in nearly forty years, I was in shape. As far as wardrobe, Bangkok Jay had no maroon or black T-shirts, and the only shorts he wore were khaki.
But Isabel looked nearly unchanged. A few years older, sure, but when you were talking about going from twenty-three to twenty-six, that really didn’t mean much. Her thick, black hair was about the same length as I remembered, reaching just below her shoulder blades. She was around five foot three and slim as ever. Her skin
a few shades darker than I recalled, but living so close to the beach now undoubtedly accounted for that.
I guess the most shocking thing to me was that she was showing a lot of skin. The Isabel I knew wouldn’t have been caught dead outside in a bikini. But here on the beautiful Boracay beach she was wearing a white two-piece suit that only covered what it was supposed to.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen her in a bikini before. She’d often worn one inside the bar, but that was work. Outside the bar, it had been strictly one-piece suits if she decided to swim in public at all.
Her face was still her best feature. Larry once told me every time he looked at her, time stopped. I told him he was full of shit, but I knew what he meant. She had large, dark eyes, with lids that seemed to open only halfway. And when she smiled, her whole face lit up.
Yet there was something different about her now. Her…softness was gone. Well, maybe not softness, exactly. Her innocence. That was it. Her innocence had been wiped away. She looked harder now, had more of an edge. And my guess was that when she smiled these days, it was most likely calculated and lacked the spontaneity Larry had loved. It wasn’t much of a stretch to guess what had triggered the change.
Seeing her, I knew now more than ever that she and I needed to talk. Because Larry was dead, and the dead lived only through the memories of their friends and family. Larry had no family, and as far as I knew, Isabel and I were his only close friends.
• • •
I continued to read my magazine while keeping an eye on Isabel and her European friend. I should have realized before I came back to the Philippines that Boracay would be the obvious location to find her. It had always been her favorite place. The first time she came here was with Larry, of course. I had been on that trip, too, though I wasn’t the important one.
Around four o’clock, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. By this point I’d finished with the magazine and was absently watching a couple of kids playing in the surf. I glanced in Isabel’s direction. She and her foreigner friend were folding up their towels, finished with their afternoon in the sun. After a few moments, they headed back the way they’d come.
Once they were far enough away, I pushed myself to my feet, gave my towel a quick shake, then pulled on my T-shirt and followed.
Not too far up the beach, they turned into the White Sands Resort. I’d stayed there myself once. The small resort was designed so guests didn’t feel like they were staying at any old hotel. Individual grass-roofed “huts” surrounded a central main building and swimming pool—the perfect place to bring your family, wife, or new Filipina girlfriend.
I closed the gap a little and followed them past the pool, toward the huts to the right of the main building. At number 23, the fat guy unlocked the door and they went inside.
I made my way back to the bar next to the pool and ordered a Coke. I wasn’t sure what I should do next. After all, I couldn’t just walk up, knock on their door and ask, “Can Isabel come out and talk?”
When I’d been sitting alone in my hotel room in Angeles, finding Isabel seemed like the hard part. But now that I
found her, I realized the talking would be the most difficult. Would she really want to revisit a past she’d probably spent the last few years trying to forget? Just because I’d been unable to dull the memories didn’t mean she’d been having the same problem. Was it even fair of me to put her through that?
As I put my empty glass back down on the bar, I’d all but decided my being here was a mistake.
Let her live her life, and you go on living yours, buddy.
I put a hundred pesos in the cup on the bar in front of me and left.
• • •
The next morning I woke thinking about home. If I left Boracay by noon, I could catch a flight out of Manila that evening. I had a new life in Thailand, and I was anxious to get back to it. I could actually wake up in my own bed tomorrow. A phone call to Thai Airways confirmed there was a flight that night with a few seats available. But when the operator asked if I wanted to purchase a ticket, I hesitated.
As much as I wanted to be done with the Philippines, I knew if I didn’t at least try to talk to Isabel, I never would be. And that wouldn’t be fair to my new life, to Natt. Instead of booking a flight for that night, I made a reservation for one leaving two days later.
That should be enough time,
I thought, to find her, to talk to her. Assuming, of course, she’d talk to me.
I’d lived in the Philippines for six years, all in Angeles City. For a while, I had planned on spending the rest of my life there. But things changed.
So I escaped while I had the opportunity, because if I hadn’t, I would still be one of the old, fat, dumb white guys. Or, rather, older and fatter and dumber…and drunker.
Bangkok was my home now. I’d found a wife there. We owned a couple of struggling English-style pubs. We were even talking about having a child. I had begun to regain myself, as much as I could, anyway.
When I got the call about the offer for my stake in the bar, I talked about it with my wife. Natt knew what my life had been like in the Philippines. She knew what I used to do. I’d told her everything before we got married. So, though it probably shouldn’t have, it surprised me when she said I should return to the island and finalize the deal. When I then suggested she come with me, she kissed me and said one of us needed to stay and take care of the business. What she was really saying was, “You need to go on your own. Do what you need to do, then come back to me whole.”
• • •
Contrary to popular belief back on Fields Avenue in Angeles City, Isabel and I never slept together. Our relationship wasn’t like that. In truth, there was something about her that reminded me of Lily, my stepdaughter—former stepdaughter, that is. Lily had been the best part of my marriage to Maureen. It had hurt her so much when her mother and I divorced that she had to be pried off me the day I said goodbye. It still hurt
every time I thought about that.
The normal age for girls to start work in the bars along Fields was eighteen, but Isabel arrived in Angeles at the ancient age of twenty-one. I think it was her smile that reminded me most of Lily, that and her innocence. I guess that’s why I took her under my wing. For the first several months, I was able to steer her away from anything too harmful. Until Larry showed up.
On Boracay the next morning, I ate breakfast around eight a.m. at the small hotel where I was staying, then set out to find Isabel. When I arrived at the White Sands Resort, I did a quick walk-through of all the common areas but there was no sign of her or her friend. I guess I didn’t expect it to be that easy, but I had hoped.
I ordered a tall glass of orange juice from the outside bar and took a seat next to the pool, hoping Isabel and her date would make an appearance. By then, it was after nine a.m., and half a dozen others were eating in the restaurant. As was my habit since arriving on the island, I was wearing my swimsuit under my shorts, so after I finished my juice, I decided to go for a dip.
It was sometime during my sixth or seventh lap when I saw Isabel’s friend walk by. At first I thought he was alone, but a moment later, one of the hotel staff followed, lugging a large suitcase. No Isabel. I pulled myself out of the water, toweled off quickly, threw on my shirt and shorts, then made my way after him.
The fat man was in the final process of checking out when I caught up to him. I recognized his accent now—Dutch. And this close to him, I realized I’d seen him before. His name was Henrik or Hendrik or something like that. He used to be a once-or-twice-a-year visitor to Angeles, and I assumed he still was. Like many of the regular visitors, I had bought him a few beers back in the day. But while I knew who he was, there was no way he would recognize me.
As he turned to leave, I took an innocent step to the side, blocking his way.
“Excuse me,” he said.
“Oh, sorry,” I said. As I stepped out of his way, our eyes met. “Aren’t you…? Yeah.” I grinned. “You’re the guy who was with that real beauty last night.”
He returned my grin, but said nothing.
“You leave her sleeping back in the room?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Just checked out.”
I nodded in comprehension. “There’s always the next trip, right?”
He headed for the front door.
“Hey,” I called out just before he exited. “You mind letting me know where you found her?”
He stopped and looked back, grinning again. “Angie’s,” he told me. “Her name is Crystal.”