Yes. A thousand and one percent, yes.
Corrie Mejía's thighs tensed under the antique wooden desk in her office as she gripped the arms of the matching chair. The old Mexican pine creaked under the tension as she forced her body to remain calm and commanded her face to appear as if she were still considering the offer presented by the balding, middle-aged man sitting across from her.
This was the moment she'd been waiting for since the day she'd decided to become an archaeologist. Now that it was finally happening, it took all her strength not to launch out of her seat and accept the job without knowing any details-not that it would be the first time. But who cared about details after hearing those glorious words, words she'd longed to hear for decades:
Because you, Dr. Socorro Mejía, are the world's most brilliant archaeologist and the leading expert on the subject, we want you-and only you, because no one else could possibly measure up-for an all-expenses-paid and no-expense-spared expedition to Mexico to search for the remains of the Aztec warrior Chimalli and the tecpatl sacrificial knife he stole from Moctezuma II when he fled Tenochtitlán right before the downfall of the Aztec Empire.
Well, okay. He didn't say it quite like that. It was more like I've been sent here by an anonymous investor to offer you a position on a Chimalli expedition.
But the implication was still there-no one knew more about Chimalli than Corrie. And she was fucking brilliant.
The dusty old clock she'd inherited from her grandmother ticked in the corner of her tiny office at Berkeley. Her office was only half the size of those of the other faculty members. Once you make tenure, you'll get a bigger one, she'd been told. Funny how that had never happened. It wouldn't have even crossed her mind if this stranger wasn't practically right on top of her in the cramped space, able to observe every flinch. Every forced effort at maintaining composure.
The ticking grew louder with each passing second. And with each hammering beat, Corrie's abuela's words echoed through her ears.
If it's too good to be true, there's a catch.
Corrie had learned the truth behind those words the hard way. Now, at thirty-five years old, she'd trained herself to temper her gut reactions. Suss out the motives. Put in some evaluation before the adventure. Or, you know, maybe at least get a detail or two in advance of saying yes.
Because why-especially after rallying hard for the last eight years to find someone to finance this exact dig-would this güey she'd never seen or heard of in her entire life be coming to her now, offering her the job of all jobs. Her dream dig on an all-expenses-paid platter.
There had to be a catch. There was always a catch.
A knock on her door cut though the tension in the room, allowing her to release her hold on the chair.
"Come in," she called out, giving the stranger a quick glance before swiveling her chair toward the door.
Her mentee, Dr. Miriam Jacobs, entered, clasping an assortment of books and papers under her arm.
"Hi, Dr. Mejía," she said, noticing that Corrie had company, "I'm here for our one o'clock to discuss next semester's course outline."
Corrie glanced at the clock, and sure enough, their meeting should have started more than ten minutes ago. Right. Those were the details she should have been focusing on, given that the fall semester would be starting in a few short weeks. It wasn't like her to be late or to blow people off. She wasn't an "absentminded professor" or one of those my time is more important than your time types like some of her colleagues. In fact, Corrie prided herself on being down to earth. Someone her students admired rather than feared. A professor who was as entertaining over a pint of beer as she was in the classroom. A mentor for other young female archaeologists like Miriam to help navigate the patriarchal holdovers of the formerly male-dominated field.
But this unfamiliar person had showed up fifteen minutes ago and immediately started with, "I have a proposition that you'll find very enticing," before she could tell him she had an upcoming appointment. How was she supposed to refuse without at least hearing him out?
"Oh, I'm sorry, Miri. The time got away from me. Just give me-"
"Dr. Mejía won't be handling any courses this fall."
The stranger's words about knocked the wind out of her. Enticing or not, Corrie Mejía did not take kindly to men speaking for her.
"Excuse me?" Corrie said, slowing cocking her head in the man's direction.
"Dr. Mejía is leaving for Mexico in a few days," the man clarified, speaking to Miriam as if Corrie weren't in the room, "and she'll be there at least through the semester." He took off his glasses and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, proceeding to polish the lenses as if it were no big deal.
As if leaving for an unplanned trip to Mexico in a few days were no big deal.
"I'm not sure if you realize this, but I haven't agreed yet," Corrie snapped back.
"No, but you will."
"Oh, I will, will I? Says who?" She folded her arms and leaned back in her chair.
"Says the person who sent me here." The man returned his glasses to his face. "I wouldn't be here if there was even an inkling of a chance that you'd say no."
Corrie's mouth slackened, but nothing came out. Person? What person? Various names swirled through her head, but none made any sense. It couldn't be any of the people she'd previously approached for funding, because why the need to remain anonymous? And she didn't really know anyone else who had the financial means to pull off something like this, and certainly not someone who knew her well enough to be so sure that there wasn't even an inkling of a chance that she'd say no. Few people knew Corrie at all-at least, not the real Corrie.
"Corrie?" Miriam asked, her voice strained with worry and confusion, pulling Corrie's attention to the matter at hand.
"Um, uh, yes," she said, standing and walking toward the door. "How about I e-mail you this afternoon and we can reschedule?"
Corrie held the door open for Miri, who took two tentative steps back while nodding and taking one last glance at the stranger before she closed the door. With her back to the man, she took a deep breath, then turned and leaned flush against the wood-paneled slab.
"Who sent you?" she asked.
"I'm sorry, Dr. Mejía, but that's confidential."
"All right . . . Then where would I be going?"
Her eyebrow quirked up. "Okay . . . How am I supposed to direct this dig if I don't know who I'm working for or where I'm going?"
"You'll be assisting, not directing. The specifics will be left to the lead archaeologist."
A tiny laugh escaped her lips as she tossed back her head and looked at the ceiling. He couldn't be serious. No way was Corrie agreeing to play second fiddle on a Chimalli dig. Not even if succeeding on this dig could finally launch her into archaeology's gated inner circle where she might be taken more seriously.
"Hold on. Let me get this straight. Not only will I not be the lead, but you want me to agree to go on a job not knowing who sent you, who I'll be working for, or where I'll be going, and I'll be leaving in a few days? And, let me guess, your name is confidential, too?"
The man didn't flinch.
Oh, there was a catch, all right. She laughed again, but this time it was a full-throated laugh filled with disbelief and annoyance. Without further hesitation, she whipped the door behind her wide open.
"Well, you can tell whoever it is that sent you that they clearly don't know me at all. I'm going to have to pass."
She signaled toward the door with a nod of her head, then crossed her arms. And the man smiled. Corrie wanted nothing more than to wipe that smile off his face with a full-handed smack as he finally rose from his seat and walked to the door to leave. But before he did, he stopped in front of Corrie, his face two feet from hers.
"Sorry to hear that you don't want to partake in the discovery of your ancestor's remains. When you change your mind, there will be a ticket waiting for you on Sunday morning at the United Airlines counter. Flight leaves at five a.m."
Corrie stood at the door, eyes wide, as the man walked down the hall without turning back. In one word, the man had convinced her. Ancestor.
Whoever sent this man knew her better than she could have ever imagined.
Mexico in August was even hotter than Corrie had anticipated. She’d been many times to visit family, go on vacation, and participate in other digs, but never in August.
She'd also never gotten on an airplane after being propositioned by a man with no name, but the time to question her decisions had already passed. There had been a brief moment at SFO when she'd debated her own sanity-sometime after realizing that the man with no name had somehow gotten her passport information, but before boarding the plane. A quick call to the Anthropology Department's administration office confirmed that Mr. No-Name had verified the details of the expedition and her travel arrangements in advance. That at least gave her a sliver of confidence that she wasn't en route to her demise.
"Last call for passengers on flight 5468 to Houston," the loudspeaker bellowed out.
She glanced at the note accompanying her ticket to board flight 5468 to Houston, along with its companion ticket to her final destination in Oaxaca, Mexico, once more.
We knew you'd agree. We'll find you outside the airport once you land.
Oaxaca. There'd been many theories on the final resting place of Chimalli, Oaxaca not being one of them. Based on her research, that wasn't the final destination. No, this was merely the jumping-off point.
Most people thought he'd fled south of Tenochtitlán into the pine-oak forests of the Sierra Madre del Sur. Others thought west, near Lake Chapala. Corrie had other ideas.
The Lacandon Jungle. The outskirts of the Aztec domain, not far from the abandoned settlements of the Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Mayans. The Lacandon provided thick cover from enemies and had an abundance of flora and fauna to consume in the absence of farmed foods. Its terrain and conditions matched perfectly with what Corrie believed were the most credible accounts of Chimalli's disappearance.
And it was located not far from Oaxaca.
Part terrified and part eager, Corrie had boarded that damn plane, determined to at least find out who the hell had the nerve to think they knew her better than she knew herself. Besides, she could always back out if things looked shady once she arrived. Unless this was all a ruse to kidnap her. Or worse.
She walked out of the Oaxaca airport to a blast of hot, humid air and meandered under the shaded walkway, rethinking her decision to wear long pants and sleeves. The sticky heat invaded every nook and cranny of her outfit. She tossed her bags atop an empty concrete bench, then stripped down to a formfitting black V-neck undershirt while she searched her things for a clip to keep her hair off her sweaty neck. Not exactly the professional archaeologist image she'd been going for, with her boobs practically on full display, but red-faced and reeking of sweat wasn't any better.
Who was she waiting for, anyway? The man with no name? Someone else? She glanced at the note one more time: We'll find you.
Suddenly those words felt much more ominous than they had a few hours earlier. Everything about this seemed like a bad idea. Or, hell . . . maybe this was a super elaborate practical joke from the UC Berkeley Department of Anthropology as a congratulations for making tenure.
Though that would be quite an expensive practical joke. Her colleagues had barely wanted to shell out ten bucks apiece to upgrade their coffee maker a year ago. But with the passing of each excruciatingly long minute, the chances that this was a practical joke were more and more likely.
Forty-eight minutes. At what point would she call it and inquire about catching a return flight home?
You've been played, Dr. Mejía. Remember . . . there's always a catch.
She closed her eyes and winced at her gullibility. God, this is embarrassing. It wasn't like her to cry. No, tough chicas didn't cry. So when the prick of tears formed behind her eyelids, she squeezed them tighter.
Always confirm the motives in advance. She chastised herself for failing to follow her grandmother's advice and for falling back into her impulsive adventure-seeking habits. Had she asked a few more questions or demanded answers, maybe she wouldn't be sitting alone on a bench in Oaxaca trying to figure out how she was going to explain this to the head of the department. Taking the semester off on such short notice had put a real wrench in the department's curriculum. "This isn't another one of your wild Lara Croft adventures, is it?" the department director had asked. After her last dig had resulted in an emergency evacuation, all on the university's tab, they had a right to be concerned. This time, she'd practically had to beg.
But admitting she'd been duped and having to grovel to resume her original course plans? The idea made Corrie want to vomit.
One hour. One hour and then she'd call it. And she'd figure out how to grovel on the flight home.
Once the threat of crying subsided, Corrie slowly opened her eyes and noticed a blurry figure approaching. A man in sunglasses and a Panama hat came into focus as she blinked a few times to dissipate the tears. Not the man with no name. No, someone else.
Someone . . . familiar.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't Dr. Corrie Mejía," the man called out with a distinctive, friendly voice. A warm voice that had shared hundreds of laughs with Corrie over pints and cheese fries at the Village Pub during grad school.
A voice Corrie would recognize anywhere.
"Ethan!" she said, leaping from the bench and running toward her old friend. Her spirits lifted as he lifted her from the ground into a hearty embrace, sending his hat toppling to the ground.
"What are you doing here?" she asked as he set her on the pavement, though she refused to let go of him for fear that he'd vanish into thin air.
Copyright © 2023 by Jo Segura. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.