“Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately”—Dr. Timothy Cathcart looked pointedly around the team of thirteen explorers— “Almost all of us in this group have PhD’s and are renowned as the best of the best in our fields, so drop all pretenses and stick with first names during the entire trip. Got it?”
Everyone nodded and glanced around. None of them seemed particularly haughty or pretentious so Nicholas wasn’t worried.
“Other than our shovelbum over here.” Timothy pointed at the youngest member of the team. “He’s just a grad student.”
That brought chuckles and the man beside him ruffled the kid’s hair. They looked alike. Father and son, maybe?
The small makeshift conference room at the basecamp in Flores, Guatemala wasn’t much more than a few slabs of sheet metal held together with industrial nails on a wooden frame. It did little to keep out the heat or the flies. Nicholas had forgotten how much he hated this aspect of archaeology explorations and decided now would be a good time to invest in the local economy and build a more permanent structure here.
“Seriously, though, let’s go around the room and get to know each other. We’ll be spending the next six weeks in pretty close quarters.” Timothy pointed at the younger kid again. “Matt, you want to get us started since I’ve already picked on you? Tell us your name, where you’re from and your field of expertise, plus your title and what your role will be on this team.”
“Sure.” Matt sat up straighter with more confidence than Nicholas expected. “I’m at Cornell, working on a Master of Arts in Archaeology with a concentration in Ritual and Religion. As Timothy mentioned, I’ll be your field technician, aka grunt, shovelbum, digger, gopher, whatever you want to call me.”
“We’ll just call you Matt,” Timothy said with a wink. “Welcome. Is this your first expedition?”
“Nah, my dad’s been dragging me along to digs since I was old enough to carry my own fifty-pound pack.” Matt smiled at the man beside him.
“Had to get him started in the family business early.” The man nodded and bumped Matt’s shoulder. “I go by Matthew so you all can tell us apart. At least I’ve got twenty-five years on him. It’s gonna take a while for us to tell the twins apart.” Matthew hitched his thumb to the side.
“Sorry about that.” Levi shrugged. “Maybe one of us should have dyed our hair or something.”
“We’ll get to know you soon enough,” Matthew said. “Anyway, I’m the reason Matt chose Cornell since that’s where I completed my PhD in Anthropology with a concentration in archaeology. I will be serving on this expedition as your field director.” Matthew turned to Levi, who sat to his left.
“Greetings. I’m Levi, the more intelligent of the Geek Twins, as proven by extensive IQ testing, my chosen field of linguistics, and the fact that I proposed to my brother’s girlfriend before he even asked her on a date.” Levi spouted his diatribe with a straight face, drawing more laughter than a stand-up comedian.
Nicholas met his brother’s humor with a lighthearted disclaimer. “As the older of the Geek Twins—and more mature—I will not be held responsible for anything that comes out of my brother’s mouth.”
“Don’t worry, Nicholas, your mouth will be regularly silenced by Dr. Benson’s lips.”
“Ooh! Slam!” Multiple members of team jeered and laughed at them while Nicholas felt his cheeks flush.
“Is it hot in here?” Nicholas asked playfully, pulling at his collar.
“I feel the heat whenever you sit next to me,” Becky said with a smirk.
“Good thing too,” Levi said. “Because Nicholas will need a lot of cold showers over the next few weeks.”
That brought more laughter and Nicholas rolled his eyes. “Like I said, I will not be held responsible for him.”
Levi pulled his wallet from his back pocket, slipped out a dollar bill and tossed it to the middle of the table. “Anyone else want to lay wagers how many days until I no longer have a roommate in my tent and Becky is no longer afraid of the dark?”
Amid laughter and jeers most of the guys threw a dollar on the table.
Becky leaned closer and whispered to Nicholas, “What if I’m afraid of the dark tonight?”
“Unless you want to find a magistrate this afternoon, you might want to get a flashlight.” Since his lips were so close to her ear, Nicholas kissed her neck and she giggled.
“Just to make this wager fair”—Levi started numbering pieces of paper from one to eleven and handed them out— “Take a slip of paper and write your name on it. If they hold out past eleven, we’ll start over.”
“Weren’t we discussing fields of study?” Nicholas asked. “Safe topics like logistics and job titles, responsibilities at camp. That kind of thing?”
“Your responsibility each evening is to help Becky get her tent set up properly.” Levi patted him on the back.
“Anyway…” Nicholas couldn’t fight a grin. “I’ll go next. My name is Nicholas and I currently teach at Harvard but completed my PhD at Boston University with a degree in anthropology. I will be serving as the team’s environmental archaeologist and my very irreverent twin will be our linguist.” Nicholas turned to Becky, passing the spotlight.
“I’m Rebecca and I currently work at the University of Houston at the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping. I too completed my PhD at Boston University studying Geography & Environment. What else?” Becky scratched her chin. “Oh, and I’m engaged to Levi and sleeping with Nick, so this should be an interesting adventure.” That brought more laughter.
“Would you like me to trade chairs so you can sit between us, darling?” Nicholas asked playfully.
“Did the three of you know each other while at Boston?” Matthew asked.
“Becky and I did,” Nicholas said.
“I was his TA in the GIS lab.”
“Completely off-limits.” Nicholas hid his sarcasm behind a fake cough.
“Not anymore.” Becky’s singsong declaration was followed by a flirty smile.
“I give ’em four days,” one guy said.
“Can I change my number? There’s no way they’re making it to eight.”
“Shoot, I got eleven, what are you complaining about?”
Nicholas leaned closer to Becky and stage whispered, “It’s not too late to get on the plane and head back to the States.”
“Heck no!” Becky pulled out a dollar bill and tossed it into the middle with everyone else’s. Then she grabbed one of the extra pieces of paper Levi had torn apart and made a show of writing out the word Z-E-R-O and tossed that on the pile. “Game on.”
Nicholas laughed heartily and laid his head on the table, peeking up at her. “You are in so much trouble.”
She just grinned back at him and Nicholas felt his heart melt along with his resolve. He was the one in trouble and they all knew it.