For Professor Michael McCarter the day had begun fifteen hours earlier in the darkness of a cold New York winter morning. From there he’d crossed two continents and an ocean, traveling in everything from a blue Super-Shuttle with a dysfunctional heater to a first-class seat on a shiny new Boeing. He’d changed planes three times, consumed several helpings of what the airlines euphemistically called food and traveled nearly nine thousand miles in all. Now, only minutes from his destination, he’d finally begun to wonder if it was all a terrible mistake.

McCarter sat in the rear section of Hawker’s helicopter on a narrow strip of tan canvas that passed for a seat. Above his head, the engine whined in a furious pitch while the rotors bludgeoned the air with a sound that shook his body like the thumping from a pair of massive bass speakers. Tropical air poured in through the gaping cargo door across from him, while beyond it dark green shapes, which he assumed to be trees, flicked by in sudden, violent blurs. Inside the cabin, everything rattled and jostled and vibrated on its own particular frequency, no doubt contributing to the ominous hairline cracks he saw near many of the joints and rivets.

“What the hell am I doing here?” he said aloud.

For fifteen years, Michael McCarter had been the senior professor of archaeology at a prestigious university in New York City. An African American in his late fifties, McCarter stood tall and distinguished, with a touch of gray at his temples and wire-rimmed glasses on his face. Early in his career he’d published extensively; more recently he’d become a media favorite, appearing on several PBS specials and as a star speaker at various conferences and symposiums, something his deep, resonant voice lent itself to perfectly.

The NRI had been after him for the better part of six months. He’d politely turned them down twice and had ignored all the letters and e-mails that followed. Then, in what he could only describe as a moment of weakness, he’d taken a call from Danielle Laidlaw and she had convinced him, despite all his intentions to the contrary, that this was an opportunity he could not afford to miss.

Now, staring through the open cargo door at objects that were far too close and moving entirely too quickly, he was certain that he’d made the wrong choice.

He turned toward the cockpit and pressed the talk switch on his intercom. “Shouldn’t we be a little higher?” he said.

The pilot turned and studied McCarter from behind dark sunglasses. His reply was unsettling. “Sorry, Doc. These things drop like a rock if the engine fails. I’d just as soon be closer to the ground, if it’s all the same with you.”

It was a lie, of course. Helicopters had their own way of gliding, called auto rotation, and additional altitude only helped, but the one thing pilots liked better than telling stories to one another was lying to those who didn’t fly.

McCarter looked around him. “What if it’s not all the same with me?”

This time Hawker just laughed. The helicopter continued to skim the trees.

McCarter leaned back in his seat and began to look around the cabin, examining the interior, making eye contact with the others who were there, glancing anywhere but out that open door. Three other passengers accompanied him, two of them NRI regulars: Mark Polaski, a communications tech, and William Devers, a linguist who spoke various native languages. The third passenger was a student named Susan Briggs, whom McCarter had agreed to take along at the insistence of the university dean.

She was only twenty-one years old and about to enter the masters program in Archaeological Studies; McCarter had taught her in two classes and found her to be an excellent student, if something of an introvert. She had a tomboyish quality about her, wearing little or no makeup, preferring jeans and T-shirts to more stylish clothes. When she did speak there was a nervous tone to her voice, and despite her intelligence she often spoke in superlatives and other words that seemed to mean very different things to her and the rest of the young people than they did to him.

McCarter knew little of her outside the classroom. Except that she’d been raised by wealthy, absentee parents who were very close to the dean, and that if the young woman didn’t return in the exact condition she’d left in, there would be hell to pay. On the flight over, she’d explained that her parents had wanted her to spend the spring in Europe, beginning in Paris. They couldn’t understand why she’d go on a trip like this instead. As usual, permission had finally been granted with her mother’s passive-aggressive parting shot: they would keep the Paris ticket on hold, in case she got out in the jungle and didn’t feel that it was right for her. In other words, they figured she wouldn’t last a week.

For now, at least, Susan’s face was beaming. She sat closest to the open door, gazing out at the terrain flying past.

McCarter tapped her on the shoulder. “You look like you’re actually enjoying this.”

“Aren’t you?” she said, her eyes round and innocent.

He shook his head.

“Well, maybe you should check out the view.” She waved him over.

As Susan spoke, the man to her right turned toward them: Mark Polaski, somewhere around fifty, sporting a five o’clock shadow since early morning and in the midst of a losing battle with male pattern baldness. He took one glance out the door and then looked at McCarter. “I wouldn’t if I were you,” he said.

“You see,” McCarter said, triumphantly. “I’m not alone in this.” He looked Polaski’s way. “Don’t you think we should be a little bit higher?”

Polaski nodded. “Or in a bus, on the ground, like normal people.”

McCarter and Susan both laughed. And across from them, William Devers did the same. Though he’d just turned thirty-five, Devers was a fairly accomplished young man, full of pride; piss and vinegar, as McCarter’s dad used to say. He claimed to be an expert in the native languages of Central and South America. As he’d informed everyone, he also spoke Russian, French, German, Spanish and Latin and had authored a pair of books on what he called language mutation. Though exactly what that was McCarter had pointedly avoided asking.

Devers leaned in closer. “This is the NRI,” he said, shouting to be heard above the noise. “We don’t do things like normal people. We have to show off—especially when we’re overseas.” He examined their surroundings. “To be honest with you, this chopper is a piece of crap compared to the last one I was in: a brand-new Sikorsky or something. That thing had leather seats, air-conditioning and a fully stocked wet bar.” His eyebrows went up and down for emphasis and he looked directly at McCarter. “NRI, it stands for Nice Rides Incorporated.” He turned to Polaski. “You should know that.”

Polaski shook his head. “This is my first time in the field.”

Devers’ face wrinkled with suspicion. “I thought you had five years with us?”

“I do,” Polaski said. “But I’m with STI. We don’t get out much.”

As the concern grew on Devers’ face, McCarter and Susan exchanged glances. McCarter asked the obvious. “What’s STI?”

“Systems Testing and Implementation,” Devers said, beating Polaski to the punch, and then looking at him disgustedly. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“We’re running a field test on a new satellite transmission protocol.”

“I knew it,” Devers said. “You’re a damn section five!”

McCarter looked at Susan, who shrugged. “What’s a section five?” he asked.

“Last page of the logistics manifest,” Devers said. “And the place where we stick untested prototypes when we want to burden another project with them. It’s supposed to hold research costs down, but all it usually does is screw up the main operation.”

“It’s not that bad,” Polaski insisted.

“Don’t tell me that,” Devers said. “I spent last summer in Siberia on a pipeline project. Instead of good old four-by-fours we got stuck with something called a Surface Effect Vehicle.” He turned to McCarter. “It’s a type of hovercraft that’s supposed to replace good old box trucks in places with bad terrain or no roads. Like Siberia in the middle of summer, after the permafrost melts.”

“Permafrost doesn’t melt,” Polaski said. “That’s why they call it permafrost.”

“Well, something damn well did,” Devers replied. “And whatever the hell it was, we were supposed to ride over the top of it. Only that piece of crap kept breaking down and crashing face-first into the mud. Nine times in three months we ended up sitting on the roof, praying we wouldn’t sink and waiting on a truck from the Khrushchev era to come bail us out. Let me tell you, it impressed the hell out of the Russians. They kept calling it the Yugo—as in, you go and we’ll come get you later.”

Polaski scratched his balding pate. “Yeah, I heard about that one. Things didn’t go exactly as planned out there.”

“Hell no, they didn’t. Tell me we have some type of backup to your satellite protocol.”

“Standard shortwave,” Polaski said.

Devers settled back a bit. “Well, that’s better. Even I can work an old-fashioned radio.” He turned to Susan and McCarter. “What about you two?”

McCarter nodded. Susan said proudly, “I built a ham radio when I was fourteen.”

Devers scrunched his face. “I bet that made you popular with the boys.”

For an instant she shrunk back, but then replied, “It did. With the boys in Australia.”

All of them laughed at that, as Devers turned back to Polaski. “Don’t take this the wrong way. But who’d you piss off to get stuck on this deal anyway? I mean, a beta test in the middle of the jungle?”

“I volunteered,” he said proudly. “It sounded like an adventure. My youngest daughter just left for college in the fall and she made me promise to have more fun in my life.”

“Fun?” Devers asked. “You call this fun?” He turned to McCarter. “What do you think, Professor, you having any fun yet?”

McCarter’s face was grim. The helicopter had started a steep turn to the right, tilting him toward the open cargo door. He gripped the rails of the seat with both hands, fearing that his belt might give way at any moment and send him tumbling out the hatch. “This flight’s only a short one,” he managed. “I’m sure things will be a lot more enjoyable once we get in the field.”

“Right,” Devers said. “Sweating our balls off in a hundred degrees of heat and humidity—that’s when the fun starts.”

Devers leaned back in his seat, laughing even harder at his own comment.

“Don’t listen to him,” McCarter said. “It’s probably no more than ninety-five degrees out there. Ninety-six, ninety-seven, tops.”

As another wave of laughter moved through the group, McCarter thought of his own reasons for joining the expedition. For a moment he felt the grip of sadness creeping in, but then the helicopter began to slow and the treetops gave way to acres of manicured grass and sculptured botanical gardens. A leisurely turn to the left revealed the main buildings of the Hotel San Cristo, and a moment later they were touching down on the helipad.

McCarter climbed out, thankful to be stretching his legs. He saw a young woman in black slacks and a sleeveless khaki shirt walking toward them from the hotel.

“Welcome to Brazil,” she said. “I’m Danielle Laidlaw.”

Black Rain