It is 1902 and Georgina Potter has followed her fiancé to the Philippines, the most remote outpost of America’s fledgling empire. But Georgina has a purpose in mind beyond marriage: her real mission is to find her brother Ben, who has disappeared into the abyss of the Philippine-American War.
To navigate the Islands’ troubled waters, Georgina enlists the aid of local sugar baron Javier Altarejos. But nothing is as it seems, and the price of Javier’s help may be more than Georgina can bear.
Georgie was not lucky—never had been—but even she could not believe her poor timing. The growing fire was only a few streets away. In this city made almost entirely of wood, the buildings separating her from the fire were a mere appetizer when compared to the towering three-story Hotel de Oriente, where she was now standing. If the Oriente burned down, it would kill scores of Americans who chose this very hotel to protect them from the dangers of the city. None of this was part of Georgie’s plan: she had come to the Philippines to start a new life, not end the one she had.
She blew out the candles, pinched the wicks between her fingers to be safe, and fled the room. She ran down two flights of polished wood stairs, almost flattening a bell-hopper in the empty lobby as she charged the door. Where were the other guests, and why was no one evacuating the hotel?
Once in the street, Georgie took a moment to get her bearings. She’d had a clear view from above, but now the eastern horizon of the plaza was blocked by the La Insular cigar factory. The dull light of petroleum lamps did not help much either. She ran toward the open square in front of Binondo Church to get a better look and then followed the glow of flames down a dirt road. She had just arrived in this city, but she could still guess that tall, redheaded white women should not race through the streets of Manila at night.
She wound her way down to the canal where the fire was digesting rows of native houseboats. Families stood on shore and watched helplessly as their homes burned. Women comforted children and men cradled prize roosters as houseboat after houseboat disappeared into the flame. A dozen Filipino firemen in khaki uniforms and British-style pith helmets stood idly, their shiny engine from Sta. Cruz Fire Brigade Station No. 2 sitting unused, too far from the water line to do any good. Judging by the men resting casually against the cool iron, no one had lit the pump’s boiler yet.
Georgie had read that the natives here were natural fatalists—a long-suffering, impassive people—but this was just ridiculous. She approached the firemen.
“Put water there,” she demanded, pointing to boats that had so far escaped the flames. If doused heavily enough they might only smoke a bit. She struggled to remember the word for water she had learned earlier that day. “Tabog, tabog,” she said.
The men looked at her blankly. She tried again, working out the mnemonic device in her head: the Philippines were islands too big in the sea…too big…tubig.
“Tubig,” she said, pointing. “Tubig, tubig.”
They shrugged but kept staring at her, more interested in the novelty of a hysterical Americana than in the fire. Looking for help elsewhere, Georgie slipped around the front of the engine to find two men arguing loudly in English.
“I’ve warned you before not to interfere with the quarantine, señor. I’ll not explain myself again, especially to the likes of you.”
The speaker, a squat American policeman, had comically bushy eyebrows that did not match his humorless tone. No doubt he had been interrupted from his evening revelry to carry out this duty, and he planned to finish the job quickly and get back to the saloon. Georgie had grown up around men of his stripe, their ruddy noses betraying a greater exposure to alcohol than sun.
She did not have a good view of the man the policeman was speaking to, but she heard the fellow give a short cluck before responding. “There’s nothing in your law to prevent me from standing here, and I’ll do it all night if I have to.” His British accent amplified his condescension.
“You’re interfering with a direct order of the Bureau of Health,” said the policeman, “and that could cost you five thousand dollars—gold, mind you—and ten years in Bilibid.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“That’s the law—need I translate it into goo-goo for you?”
Sensing she was missing something, Georgie edged forward to get a better look at the Brit and discovered that he was not a Brit at all. His angular face bragged of Spanish blood, but the blackness of his hair and eyes revealed a more complicated ancestry. She had heard about these mixed-blood Filipinos, many of them wealthy and powerful, but she had not expected to meet one shirtless on the shore of the canal.
“I read law in London,” the Mestizo said. “I need no lectures on the King’s English from a blooming Yank.”
Proud words from a naked man. Well, not naked exactly, but the black silk pajama bottoms—Chinese-style, embroidered with white stitching—did not hide much. He was the tallest man in the crowd by half a head, and his powerful torso betrayed some familiarity with labor, yet he spoke to the policeman with the studied patience of a man used to commanding those around him.
“Put out this inferno,” he continued. “If you don’t, there’ll be nothing left to disinfect. The entire city will burn.”
“That’s hardly likely. We’re protected by water.” The American waved his fat hand toward the walled-in core of Manila and the bay settlements beyond, the places where the colonial regime was headquartered and most foreigners lived. The wide Pasig River in between would buffer the elite from the “sanitation” of this canal.
A tall flame bit noisily into the woven roof of a houseboat, devouring the dry grass in seconds. Georgie followed the Mestizo’s gaze from the grass to the bamboo-pile pier, nipa huts, and market stalls. Wood, wood, and more wood—it was all bona fide fire fuel straight up the street to the Oriente, the hotel that contained all her possessions in this hemisphere.
The Mestizo turned back to the policeman and tilted his head toward this path of destruction. “I’m sure you’ve considered every possibility,” he said acidly.
“I don’t have to listen to this.” The American stalked away, still eyeing his adversary, and nearly collided with Georgie. In something close to relief, he directed his frustration at her, a new and easier target. “Miss, this is no place for a woman. What are you doing here?”
Georgie wondered the same thing—though her concern had little to do with her gender and more to do with the fact that, in the thirty hours she had spent in Manila so far, she had been temporarily abandoned by her fiancé, maybe permanently abandoned by her missing brother, and now threatened by a fire that her own countrymen would not even bother to put out. That last part bothered her the most right now.
“Why aren’t the wagons being used?” she asked. “You have enough equipment to douse the flames.”
“The fire’s a necessary precaution, I assure you,” the policeman said.
Georgie frowned. “A precaution?”
“I have orders from the Commissioner to sweep this district—”
A loud crack interrupted him as another boat frame split under the strain of falling debris.
“You set this blaze?” she asked, still not sure she was getting it right.
The policeman looked quickly at the fire and then back at her. “We did what we had to do. After we burn out the spirilla in this nest, the entire area can be disinfected with carbolic acid and lime.”
Georgie knew from experience that fire was a risky ally. She had grown up near the tenements of South Boston, twelve acres of which burnt down in the Roxbury Conflagration. “Isn’t that a rough way to go about it?”
Her skepticism exasperated the policeman. Clearly, he had not anticipated this challenge from a fellow American.
“Rough?” he cried. “People should be thanking us for our help. For months we’ve been distributing distilled water all over the city for free. We’ve built new encampments and staffed them with doctors and nurses to treat the stricken. We’ve even reimbursed people for the loss of their filthy, worthless shacks. Are these efforts appreciated? Instead, savages like him”—he crooked his thumb at the Mestizo—“stir up trouble, talking of tyranny.”
The dark-eyed man in question did not respond, but crossed his arms across his bare chest. When he caught her looking at him, she turned away, embarrassed by the impropriety: his in dress and hers in curiosity.
“And what’s the natives’ answer to the cholera?” the policeman continued. “Candles? A few prayers? Carting some wooden saints around?”
Georgie thought he had a point, albeit one badly made. It took no more than an hour in the city to realize that Manila had no sewage system, making it ripe for plague. Nowhere that she had wandered today had been out of olfactory range of the Pasig River, its estuaries, or the Spanish moat. Using the same water for drink and toilet did not make for a pleasant bouquet, never mind good health. That thought gave her some sympathy for the beleaguered Insular official. This morning’s Manila Times had reported that cholera deaths were down to a quarter of their July high, so something must be working.
“Maybe he’s right,” she said hopefully to the angry man. “They’re killing the germs, after all.”
The Mestizo ran a large hand through his short hair and sighed. “His plan would’ve been better if he hadn’t chased off the infected people who used to live here, spreading the disease farther. That’s not just stupid, it’s bad policy. Do you know what the people will say tomorrow? ‘The Americans are burning the poor out of their homes to make room for new mansions.’”
“That’s absurd!” she said.
The policeman did not deny it, though. “These brownies are like children, always looking to blame someone else. I can’t control what they think, nor would I deign to try.”
The Mestizo clenched his fists at his side, unconsciously tugging at the silk pajamas. Georgie wished he would not do that, especially since it was clear he was not wearing anything underneath. She turned away to watch the flames.
A piece of fiery thatch floated through the air near her head. A fresh gust of wind blew it up and over the street toward a cluster of neighboring homes whose occupants were still in the process of pulling out their belongings. The fireball rose and fell, dancing through the dark sky in slow motion, until it landed on the grass roof of one of the huts, igniting in seconds.
Everyone, including the firemen, rushed to warn those inside, but somehow Georgie got there first. She climbed the ladder into the hut and found a small boy holding a baby. He looked at Georgie with wide eyes as if she, not the fire, was the monster devouring his home. She inched forward, hoping her exaggerated smile would bridge the language gulf. She motioned him forward, her hand outstretched, palm up, fingers beckoning—but to no avail. The boy backed farther into the bamboo wall, acting like he had never seen such a gesture before.
Georgie looked up and saw that the whole roof was in flames. How had the fire grown so quickly? “Please!” she shouted, even though she knew her English was worthless. “You have to climb down with me.” She waved her arms furiously, only adding to the boy’s terror. She couldn’t will herself to crawl more deeply into the hut, though. That would be suicide.
“Ven acá,” a deep voice said. She turned to see the Mestizo behind her on the ladder. “Dito.” He motioned with this hand, too, but his palm faced down, brushing his fingers under like a broom. It seemed a dismissive gesture to Georgie, but the boy responded right away and crawled toward them.
The man handed the baby to Georgie before scooping up the boy. “Now go!”
The Mestizo swung back on the ladder to let Georgie down first. Just then the fire surged out of the hut, raking the big man’s back. Grunting in pain, he shoved everyone the rest of the way down and pushed them all to the ground. He fell last on top of the human pile, providing cover as the platform of the house gave way in a single explosion. The flames reached out to claw at them one last time before retreating. The Mestizo pulled Georgie and the boy onto their feet and dragged them farther from the burning hut, just to be safe.
After a few moments Georgie started to breathe again, devouring air in large gulps. She could feel the heavy sobs of the boy wedged into her side, but she did not have a free hand to comfort him. The baby, on the other hand, made not a sound. Georgie looked down at the little one, wondering what kind of life the infant had led so far if tonight’s episode was not even worthy of a good bawl.
A single beat of peace passed before a throng of excited Filipinos descended on them. A young woman swooped down to grab the two children, leaving Georgie alone in the Mestizo’s arms. He continued to hold her close, brushing the ash and dirt off her ruined white shirtwaist. It was a useless attempt, but she didn’t stop him.
“Are you all right?” he asked. He was still sweating—a musky, sweet scent that distracted her from the smoke. When she looked up at his face, she noticed details she had missed before: the dimple in his chin, prominent among his dark stubble; his full bottom lip, swollen a little from an accidental elbow in the face by the boy; and his low, dark eyebrows that framed his strong, straight nose. He was handsome but unrefined—too urbane to be a blackguard but too unruly to be a gentleman.
“Are you okay?” he asked again, shaking her lightly. “Can you hear me?”
She was embarrassed to be caught staring. “Yes,” she answered. “I’m sorry. I’m fine.”
“No, I’m okay now. I’ve just…I’ve never felt so useless. The boy couldn’t understand me.”
The Mestizo shrugged. “Believe me, had you spoken his language, he would have been more scared.”
Georgie laughed, surprised at her ease. “I don’t know how your heart isn’t racing.”
The man paused, his smile not softening the look in his eyes. “Who says it isn’t?”
So he might be a bit of a blackguard after all, she thought.
Georgie noticed that the natives had stopped watching the fire and instead were watching her. She glanced over to the American policeman. The man did not need to speak to communicate the extent of his disgust. No self-respecting American woman would allow herself to be held this way by a half-naked Filipino. Upper-crust accent, Spanish features, and English law degree notwithstanding, he was still a “brownie.”
Georgie tried to loosen the Mestizo’s grip by twisting away. When that didn’t work she gently nudged him with her elbow, but he didn’t take that hint either. A seed of panic bloomed in her stomach. If they did not separate, there was liable to be more trouble for them both. She planted both palms on his chest and pressed lightly, but no one on the outside could see her resistance. All they saw was a suggestive caress.
The policeman’s eyes darkened. A small man like him—diminutive in both stature and intelligence—would no doubt resort to the power of his office to reestablish authority. Dash it, he had said as much even before the Mestizo had gotten his hands on a white woman.
Georgie summoned her strength and shoved the Mestizo away, hard. His heel caught on a rock and he fell, grimacing as he landed flat on his injured back.
A few bystanders laughed. Some would have laughed at anyone’s misfortune, but others relished the embarrassment of a proud man. Not surprisingly, the policeman’s guffaw was the loudest.
The Mestizo’s cheeks flushed red, but fury trumped pride. He got up immediately, rising in a single fluid motion while glaring at Georgie. She wanted to say something to defuse the situation—to explain, apologize, something—but the moment passed before she got up the courage. The man pivoted on his heel and walked away, not bothering to brush the gravel from his burned, torn flesh.
Georgie sighed in regret. Her first full day in Manila had not been a success by any measure. Unfortunately, it was too late to turn around now.