Arnold Moore had returned to Washington, his residence in absentia for three decades spent traipsing the world. In all that time, he’d spent less than a thousand days in Washington, and never longer than two months at a stretch. After so much time away, returning felt awkward, like being a stranger in his own land, a guest in his own empty home.

Still, this time it would be different. He’d come back to a career winding down and a superior who appeared to be growing tired of their endless clashes. This time, Moore reckoned, he’d come home for good.

Stuart Gibbs, director of operations, was a fairly paranoid man—paranoid and grossly ambitious, a combination that had led to many a metaphorical beheading of former colleagues and confidants. Based on the deteriorating tone of their last few conversations, Moore guessed he was next on the chopping block.

As if to reinforce the point, Stuart Gibbs had spoken to him only once since his arrival. No explanations had been offered and Moore’s repeated calls since had been blatantly ignored. Now, after a week of such treatment, he’d been summoned to a meeting. If it was to be his end, then he intended to air his grievances.

To meet with Gibbs, Moore traveled to the NRI’s main office, a sprawling campus known as the Virginia Industrial Complex, or more affectionately the VIC. The VIC consisted of five sleek buildings nestled among rolling hills, winding paths and rustic stone walls. The glass-walled structures were modern and attractive, the paths around them lit and manicured like those at an expensive resort. Even with the trees and lawns dormant for the winter, the complex felt more like a university mall or suburban office park than anything governmental in nature. Only the presence of armed guards in the parking lot, with their bomb-sniffing dogs and long mirrored poles, suggested otherwise.

Looking forward to the meeting, Moore arrived at the lot early and began a determined march through the crisp January air. Because of a quirk in the topography of the land, the five buildings that made up the complex lay spaced at odd intervals, with four clustered on the eastern side of the property and the fifth, housing the Operations Division and its director, Stuart Gibbs, alone on the western edge, separated from the others by a low-lying ridge and a row of seventy-foot oaks. As a result, Building Five wasn’t visible from the street or the main gate or even from the other structures, and one had to make a lengthy winding trek to reach it. It was supposedly a random occurrence, one Moore had his doubts about, but either way it had always struck him as both ironic and perfectly symbolic of the NRI’s dual and conflicting nature.

The NRI had come into existence in the late ’90s, a Frankenstein’s monster of an organization, divided and charged with two completely separate tasks. The Research Division, its main component, worked with corporate America, universities and leading entrepreneurs. Under that umbrella, corporate members gained access to advanced facilities, specialist personnel and reams of declassified data from NASA and the military. Its purpose was to boost the fortunes of American industry, to counter the subsidies and government assistance that corporations in Europe and Japan enjoyed.

But Research Division was only part of the organization, sometimes referred to as the civilian side. There was another side to the NRI, a darker side, and that was the Operations Division.

Six months after NRI’s creation—and well before the first shovel of dirt had turned at the VIC—a rider was attached to a last-minute spending bill being rushed through Congress. The rider amended the NRI’s charter, effectively dividing the organization in two, or more accurately adding a new division to the NRI’s existing structure. That new entity was called Operations Division, or OpD.

OpD was tasked with a more sinister mission—the active gathering of industrial secrets, including those belonging to foreign powers and entities. In other words, industrial espionage. Appropriately, OpD had been run from its very inception by former members of the CIA, beginning with its director, Stuart Gibbs.

To the outside world the change was invisible. OpD appeared to be almost irrelevant, little more than the support apparatus for Research Division, a handmaiden to its charming and successful big sister. It was Research Division that garnered all the press, Research Division that senators and CEOs enjoyed being linked to, that articles in Time and BusinessWeek focused on. To the adoring public, Research Division was the NRI; it claimed eighty percent of the budget, ninety percent of the staff and four of the five buildings at the Virginia Industrial Complex. But to the few people who knew the truth, OpD was considered the more important entity.

As Moore walked past the other buildings he couldn’t help but smile. In all his years with the NRI he’d yet to set foot in any of them—a fact that wasn’t going to change today. Whatever the future held, it waited for him on the other side of the hill, with Stuart Gibbs, in Building Five.

At the end of his half-mile trek, Moore felt energized. He bounded up the steps and into the lobby, flashed his ID badge and placed his thumb on the infrared scanner. He cleared a second checkpoint on the fourth floor and a minute later stood in the director’s waiting room.

Gibbs’ secretary barely looked up. “He’s ready for you now.”

Moore set his jaw and stepped inside.

The director’s office was a windowless inside room, well lit and large, but surprisingly spartan for a man who carried such a big stick. As Moore entered, Stuart Gibbs stepped forward, extending a hand. “Welcome, Arnold,” he said, “early as always.”

The greeting was odd and hollow; the smile was uneven, like the jagged teeth of some rabid predator. Moore felt anything but welcome.

“Have yourself a seat,” Gibbs said, steering Moore toward the visitors’ chairs in front of his desk, one of which was already occupied.

“I’ve asked Matt Blundin to join us,” Gibbs explained. “He has some information that might interest you.”

Matt Blundin was chief of security for the NRI, a huge apple of a man whose sheer volume could not be contained within the arms of the leather vistors’ chair. He was a smoker and known to be a heavy drinker who preferred late nights to early days. At eight in the morning he reeked of nicotine, and his greasy hair and wrinkled suit did nothing to belie the assumption that he’d been out all night.

Still, Blundin was one of the best in the business, consulted at times by the FBI, the SEC and the Congressional Budget Office, and if he ever left the NRI, a long list of companies waited to make him a wealthy man.

Moore took a seat next to Blundin and wondered if he should have an attorney present.

Gibbs began the conversation. “How long has it been since we spoke face-to-face? Nine months? Maybe a year?” He shrugged. “Too damned long, either way.”

Thin, angular-faced and eight years Moore’s junior, Gibbs stood rigidly straight. His sandy blond hair was turning grayer by the year but remained swept back and gelled with utter precision; his designer suit was impeccable but hanging a little loose. Gibbs had always been gaunt, but he’d lost a few pounds since the last time Moore saw him. It left him looking almost ferretlike. Gibbs the Rodent, Moore thought. Gibbs the Rat.

Moore fired first. “All right, Stuart, enlighten me with your reasons for bringing me here. If you have any.”

“I’m not sure I like your tone,” Gibbs said.

“I’m quite certain that you don’t,” Moore replied. “But that’s what happens when you pull the rug out from under someone and then ignore them for a week. They get a little off-key.”

Gibbs glared at Moore. “The three of us are here for several reasons. Beginning with an incident involving Danielle Laidlaw and the man you sent her to meet last night, a Mr. Duarte Medina.”

Moore felt his face go flush. “What type of incident?”

“She was attacked at the meeting,” Gibbs replied. “Her vehicle was shot up badly and she was almost killed.”

“Damn it,” Moore said. “I knew something like this would happen. I warned you not to pull me out. I could have protected her.”

Almost imperceptibly, Gibbs nodded. “Perhaps,” he said, glancing at Blundin, “or perhaps not. I find it interesting that you didn’t choose this particular contact until after I informed you of the change.”

“Meaning what?”

Gibbs shrugged, as if it were obvious. “If she’d been killed, we’d have had no choice but to send you back.”

Moore ground his teeth. “You can’t actually believe what you’re suggesting.”

“Medina was your contact,” Gibbs said. “Supposedly secure, supposedly trustworthy. Yet the meeting turns out to be an excuse for a hit. Who do you think we’re going to look at? In our position you’d do the same.”

Moore turned to Blundin and then back to Gibbs. He could have throttled the director. “If you think—”

Gibbs cut him off. “You argued with me for weeks about putting her in charge. You’ve been calling for updates every day since you returned despite the fact that you’re no longer a part of the project and were told to forget it. It almost seemed like you were expecting something.”

Moore snapped, “You listen to me, you son of a bitch. Danielle is a friend and a partner. You knew what that meant once. I know, because I know people who worked with you. Maybe you’ve been in this office for too damned long, because it seems you’ve forgotten.” Moore shook his head, realizing midstream that he’d taken the bait. This was just Gibbs’ way of pushing him, of screwing with him and setting him off balance.

“You know goddamned well that I would never endanger her, so cut out this fucking charade and tell me what the hell you really brought me here for.”

Gibbs was silent for a moment, as if he was mulling over what Moore had said. He tilted his chair back. “It’s taken some effort,” he said finally, “but I believe we’ve managed to clear you.”

Moore sat back. The words were spoken too precisely. They were a setup to something else, though he could not guess what.

“Show him the photos,” Gibbs said to Blundin.

Blundin opened a file folder that rested on the desk in front of him. He pulled out a black and white surveillance shot. “Is this your man Duarte?”

Moore studied the photo. It looked like Medina. “I think so.”

“Well, this guy’s dead. Been in the morgue since the day before the attack.”

Moore winced. Medina was the nephew of a man who had helped him before. A man he considered a friend. “Are you sure?”

Blundin nodded.

“Do we know who killed Medina?”

“Not yet. The police down there don’t have much to go on.”

The director took it from there. “But we have a plan to lure them out, and that’s where you actually become useful once again.”

“So now we come to it.”

Gibbs smiled wickedly, and as he spoke there was a certain amount of glee in his voice. “We’re going to make it look as if you’ve fallen into disfavor here. This meeting is the first step. I’m sure the tongues are already wagging out there. In a day or two it’ll be all over the office. Then you’ll be put on administrative leave, pending an investigation. All expectations will point to an early, forced retirement. But don’t worry, it won’t be for disloyalty—that would be too obvious. The write-ups will be for incompetence, misuse of funds and our mutual inability to get along with each other.”

“At least the last part’s true.”

“It makes for a better lie,” Gibbs assured him.

Beside him, Blundin remained quiet, and Moore wondered if he was involved in the scheme or just along for the ride. His jowly face didn’t give much away. Blundin was a good man, but he was one of Gibbs’ boys. Gibbs protected them and they protected him. Moore couldn’t blame Blundin for that; he directed his anger at Gibbs. “And to what end am I to be treated with such scorn?”

“Matt thinks they’ll attempt to buy you off—or rent you, at least. I forgot to tell you, we’ve ruined your credit as well, made it look like you’re in over your head. Big gambling problem. Came on strong when you were in Macau last year.”

Moore grimaced in disbelief. “You can’t actually be serious. The head of the operation suddenly pulled from the front line and put out to pasture? It’s too obvious.”

“These bastards are bold,” Blundin grumbled. “They lured your partner to a meeting connected with the operation and tried to gun her down in plain sight, making no attempt to disguise it. That’s unusual,” he said. “Unprofessional, really. My guess: they’re either disconnected from their controls, or just a bunch of desperate amateurs.”

“Amateurs?” Moore said. “Desperate and disconnected?” His eyes darted from the security chief to the director. “Are you talking about them or us? Because this plan smacks of all three traits, if you ask me.”

“We’ve been planning this for a while,” Gibbs said. “If they want info, and we’re betting they do, they’re going to go after the best target available—and that will be you, a disgruntled, phased-out window-sitter with a lot of information rattling around in his brain.”

Moore shook his head, doubting anyone would be so foolish.

Gibbs showed little sign of being moved, but when he spoke again his tone had become more genuine, no doubt by design. “Arnold, we don’t get along. Never have, right? If we asked the company shrink, she’d say that you resent me for taking what should have been your post and that I’m threatened by your ability. After all, given the chance, you could probably do my job at least as well as I do it, maybe better. Why do you think I send you running all over the damn world? To keep you out of Washington, where you’re the one person who might be willing and able to usurp me. That, and the fact that you’re the best at what you do. But this is the way it is: I run the show. I’m the one who says jump, not you. And right now you’re going to do what I tell you for the greater good of the organization.”

Moore smirked in disgust. The hard sell and the soft sell all wrapped up in one. “I wouldn’t do your job,” he said. “Not the way you do it, at least. So don’t give me that line of crap. What you sense from me is not that I want your title, but that I’d rather you didn’t have it either. Your judgment is poor and you’re reckless, too damned reckless for my taste.” He shook his head again. “This plan is absurd. It’s ludicrous. As ludicrous as everything else you’ve asked us to do. Splitting us up at the last minute, concocting this ridiculous story and throwing me out there as some kind of bait. This is amateur work and it’s going to get people killed. It almost did already.”

“You presume too much, Arnold.” Gibbs’ voice had become a warning; lines were close to being crossed.

“And you think too little,” Moore said. “Do you actually still intend to send her into the jungle with a bunch of civilians and some loan-outs from the Research Department? Even after all this?”

“She has protection.”

“So did Dixon,” Moore shouted. “Where the hell is he now? Did his team suddenly reappear, all tanned and rested and carrying souvenirs from a holiday somewhere? No, they’re missing and probably dead. Cut to shreds by those natives you’re so worried about, or ambushed by the same sons of bitches that shot at Danielle. And now you intend to send her out on the same path. A road people keep going down and not coming back. You’re all but throwing her life away.” Moore pointed an accusing finger at Gibbs. “There are better ways to do this,” he said, “smarter ways. The sooner you admit—”

“Enough!” Gibbs slammed his hand on the desk, his face red with frustration. “There’s no other way. We need this. Your country needs this.”

The room was silent. Moore watched Gibbs rubbing his fingers together while he got ahold of himself.

“You know what we do?” Gibbs said finally. “The greatest country on earth? We borrow money from China to pay the Arabs for their oil. That’s what we do. One day the Chinese are going to stop loaning it to us, or the Arabs are going to stop accepting paper for their hard assets.”

He pushed a folder aside and leaned in toward Moore. “If this thing is out there, then it’s the key to a whole new world, beginning with energy independence and leading the world in power generation for the next hundred years or so. Cold fusion means unlimited clean energy. It means a nation filled with clean, cheap power plants pumping out electricity for cars, trucks, trains and homes without creating carbon-based pollution, global warming or unstorable nuclear waste. And in our possession, it means the end of being a debtor to one possible enemy and a beggar in the eyes of another. You want that to fall into someone else’s hands?”

Moore had heard this speech before. And while he agreed with Gibbs’ assessment as to the magnitude of the changes that a working cold-fusion system would bring to the world, he continued to disagree with the man about the effort needed to get those results.

At Moore’s silence, Gibbs exhaled in frustration. “This is what we pay you for. To run around and gather things up that will keep the country ahead of the competition. This one just happens to be in a hole in the ground somewhere instead of in a lab or on a database. And it also happens to be the big one, the Manhattan Project of our time. I’m not giving that up, but we damn well can’t have an army running around down there, now, can we?”

“No,” Moore said. “But you can send me back before anything else goes wrong.”

Gibbs’ mind was not one to be changed by argument or persuasion; he would only dig in further out of pride. Moore knew this, but had been unable to check himself. He watched as Gibbs took the folder back from Blundin and closed it. The discussion was over.

“You don’t want to do this for me?” Gibbs said. “Fine, don’t.” He leaned forward, the sunken eyes and hollow cheeks suddenly menacing and evil. The Rodent possessed. “But you’re not going back and your partner is still out there. And she will be in danger until we find out who’s shadowing us.”

Moore refused to look away, but he could say nothing. He stared at the director in a dead silence and watched as the jagged smile returned—the deal was done.

Black Rain