A bitterly cold morning arrived in Washington, D.C., a morning of cloudless blue skies and plumes of steam on the horizon. The glaring sun lingered, low and bright, but for all its piercing brilliance, it remained a harsh and distant companion, a mere candle on the mantel of the world.

No warmth could be felt on this day, not in the sunlight or in the air. To Stuart Gibbs it seemed appropriate for a day on which the NRI was burying one of its own.

Gibbs had stood in the frigid air, giving the eulogy, keeping it short for the sake of those who had gathered. He’d offered his personal condolences and then moved respectfully away, watching as others stepped forward to console the widow of Matthew Blundin.

He watched as they spoke to her, hugged her and held her hand. He guessed at their words—kind words, no doubt, words of sorrow for her loss and praise for the job her husband had always done. No one would mention that he’d been found on the wrong side of town, shot and robbed on a street known for its drug dealers and prostitutes. No one would ask if his penchant for alcohol or late nights had led to their separation and pending divorce, or if either vice might have had a hand in his demise. They would think these things of course, but such thoughts would not be spoken, for death was not only the great equalizer but also the great eraser of misdeeds. In its wake, Blundin’s errors and habits would be forgotten, his wit and wisdom raised into legend.

Gibbs watched the procession, feeling uneasy and distracted, the rolled-up newspaper in his gloved hand crushed subconsciously in a tightening grip. There was trouble everywhere for him, the team in the rainforest had been attacked by natives, the computer system had been hijacked and made to hack into itself—and his security chief, the one man Gibbs could have trusted to find the culprit, was now dead and buried.

A pang of remorse stabbed at Gibbs. The man deserved better.

To most of those attending, the security chief’s death marked a small footnote in their own particular stories. Even the soon-to-be ex-Mrs. Blundin would move on, as she had already begun to. But for Stuart Gibbs and the NRI, the event was a massive occurrence—existence changing, in scale—and Gibbs couldn’t shake the thought of changed destiny any easier than he could ward off the chilled winter air.

Before long, the crowd began to thin. Soon, even Blundin’s widow and her party turned to go, moving slowly up the path toward the parking lot.

Gibbs lingered for twenty minutes, standing alone, thinking about Blundin, the rainforest project and the various scenarios that now presented themselves. Only as the bitter air began to seep through his coat did he move toward the parking lot himself.

By the time he arrived, his car was alone. But as he reached for his key, another vehicle turned in toward him, a silver Mercedes with tinted windows.

He eyed the car, waiting for it to pass. But it stopped beside him and the rear window descended smoothly into the door.

“Stuart Gibbs?”

Gibbs hesitated. He couldn’t see much inside the car, but there was no reason to deny who he was. “What can I do for you?”

A man with thick, gray hair and wearing a muted, charcoal-colored suit leaned toward the open window. “I noticed your tire was flat,” he said. “I thought you might need a lift.”

Gibbs glanced at the tire. The right rear was indeed flat, though it was a brand-new Michelin and had been fine when he drove in. “That’s all right,” he said. “I’ll have someone come out.”

“We need to talk,” the man insisted. “I was at the funeral today with Senator Metzger from the Oversight Committee. I have some information about Mr. Blundin’s death that I think you should be aware of.”

“What kind of information?”

“The type that can’t be given to the police until it’s properly sifted and filtered.”

Gibbs stared.

“It’s extremely time sensitive,” the man said, “so if you don’t want to listen I’ll have to deliver it to the good senator instead.”

Gibbs stared at the man in the car. He looked familiar, but whether Gibbs had seen him earlier at the funeral or knew him from somewhere else, he couldn’t be sure. “Who are you?”

The door opened, and the man in the gray suit slid to the other side. “My name is Kaufman,” he said. “My company is one of your charter members.”

Of course. Kaufman was the head of Futrex, one of the NRI’s charter affiliates. And one of the companies Blundin had been investigating.

Without a word Gibbs climbed into the car. It began to move and the tinted rear window rose smoothly back into place.

He looked around. Aside from Kaufman there was only a driver.

“Quite a shame about a man like that,” Kaufman said.

“Blundin was one of my best people,” Gibbs explained. “And a good friend as well. But he had his own issues. I guess they caught up with him.”

Kaufman nodded somberly. “They always seem to.”

The tone in Kaufman’s voice bothered Gibbs; it seemed smug and condescending. “It would be of great satisfaction to me if we could catch the person who did this. Even if it’s just some punk off the street.”

“Not likely to be some punk off the street,” Kaufman replied. “Not when the man was killed because of your Brazil project.”

Gibbs froze. Even Senator Metzger didn’t know about the Brazil project. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

“You have a group of operatives working in the Amazon at this very moment. They’re down there—somewhere—without the knowledge or consent of the American Consulate or the Brazilian government. Care to tell me why?”

“We have people in fifty countries,” Gibbs replied, fighting to maintain his composure. “I don’t keep track of them all. As far as the consulate and the Brazilian government are concerned, I’m sure you’re mistaken. But more importantly, what does this have to do with Matt’s death?”

“It’s simple,” the man replied. “He was killed because of what he knew. He was investigating your data loss, making certain people nervous. But then, you know that, don’t you?”

Gibbs glared at the man beside him, his sense of restraint failing. The man was vile. “Whatever the hell you’re getting at, say it.”

Kaufman exhaled. “Let’s start with the project,” he said. “Your people are down there looking for the ruins of an ancient Mayan city. A city that may be the source of some very special items. Items that create power, all but unlimited power.”

The man stared into Gibbs’ eyes and then continued. “Eight weeks ago, you lost another party attempting the very same thing. In fact, you’re still wondering what happened to them at this point. Another answer I can give you, if you care to listen.”

“You’re the son of a bitch who hacked us,” Gibbs said.

“We ran a program with your Research Division’s permission,” Kaufman said, proudly. “Something to do with weather simulation, I think. Seems to have caused a little storm on your end, though.”

Gibbs glared at the man. Just as Blundin had predicted, the chink in the armor of Research Division had cost them. “It makes sense,” he said angrily. “A big tech company like yours would have the expertise. My question is, why? Do you have any idea what kind of hell you’re about to bring on yourself?”

Kaufman leaned back, showing little concern at Gibbs’ aggressiveness. “Under different circumstances,” Kaufman said, “you might be right. But not here. Not now. I’m offering you a way out. The best—and last—chance you’ll ever get to put this thing behind you.”

“The NRI doesn’t need your help.”

“Not the Institute, my friend, you. It’s my intention to help you.”

“Help me do what?”

“To survive, for one thing,” Kaufman said. “It took me a while to figure it out. But it’s become apparent to me that you’ve run this thing privately. You’ve used NRI assets and proxies, but it’s your operation.”

Only at this moment did Gibbs feel the true weight of his actions. They hammered him in rapid succession; decisions made, steps taken to hide his tracks, lines crossed from which there was no going back.

Kaufman appeared impressed. “I have to admit—that’s a bold play. But it puts you in a bad position now that you’ve run into problems. The simple recovery you planned for has become tangled up with all kinds of issues and delays. You’re running out of money, or close to it. You’re just about out of time too, because people are starting to ask questions—questions you can’t answer.”

Gibbs’ jaw was clenched. He tried to relax.

“Maybe you’ll get lucky,” Kaufman said, offering him a line. “Maybe you’ll find what you’re after and disappear with it before the walls come crashing down. But then what? You can’t take it back to the NRI—or any other American organization, for that matter. Not only will they wonder where it came from but they’ll want to know what the hell you’re doing with it in the first place.

“Develop it yourself, then? With what? You can’t possibly have the resources to make a play like that or you wouldn’t have tapped the NRI accounts to begin with. So you have to sell it. The only question is: to whom?”

Gibbs remained silent, his proverbial right.

“National governments are your best bet, but which ones?” Kaufman said. “You can’t turn it over to your own; we’ve already established that. So where do you go? The Japanese? Sure. Why not? They import virtually all of their energy, they’re technologically advanced and they spend millions on this kind of research every year. But in your world they’re your chief rival, the economic equivalent of the Russians in the Cold War, and while you may be a thief, you’re not a traitor. So the EU, the Russians and the Chinese are probably out as well, at least until you’ve exhausted all the other options. And that leaves mostly the destroyers.”

“The destroyers?”

Kaufman elaborated. “Those who stand to profit most, if this revolution never comes to pass: the nuclear industry, big oil, the OPEC countries.”

Kaufman’s tone became pragmatic. “If I were you, the nuclear industry would be my first choice, although they’re not exactly a monolithic group. They might even use it one day, when their trillion dollars of capital investments run out of useful life. But more than likely they’d prefer to keep building big, expensive, dirty power plants, instead of small, cheap, clean ones—there’s more responsibility to it, more prestige and of course, more money. They’d pay you handsomely for it, though. So would big oil, OPEC and the Seven Sisters, or what’s left of them. They’d bury you in petrodollars to keep this thing on the shelf, or they might bury you for real—maybe both. At the very least it’s something you’d have to worry about for the rest of your life, because as long as you live, they have exposure.” He paused, looking Gibbs in the eye. “A terrible thing,” he said, “to live with exposure.”

Gibbs listened to Kaufman’s line of reasoning with a strange sense of déjà vu. He’d run through the same process a hundred times in his own mind. He had a plan, and it involved his disappearance, something his CIA background would assist him in, but there would always be danger. He counted on being able to handle it. “Why tell me all this?” he asked, bitterly. “In other words—what the hell is your point?”

Kaufman obliged him at last. “Because what you hoped to find out there—what we both hope to find out there—is the beginning of a revolution, one that will render the industrial and computer revolutions mere blips on the time line.

“The industrial revolution improved the lives of twenty percent of the world’s population, mostly those in Europe and North America. In other areas, it condemned vast swaths of previously happy people to lives of abject misery. Virtual slaves who toil in the ground for natural resources while their own lands are left polluted and spoiled.

“The information revolution has done the same thing on a smaller scale. The lives of twenty percent are improved, while others are rendered jobless, destitute and excess to society’s needs. Poor countries fall into the information divide and their populations lag ever further behind as they squander all their measly income just trying to keep the lights on.”

“I’m not really in this for the poor,” Gibbs said.

Kaufman sat back. “So sell it to the destroyers, then. The world will go on just as it has: pumping oil, shoveling coal and piling up nuclear waste by the ton. The wars will go on. We’ll have more debacles like Iraq. Iran will be next, and the whole Arabian peninsula when the House of Saud collapses. America will bankrupt itself fighting wars in the desert while Europe and Asia watch and reap the rewards. The poverty and pollution of the oil age will go on, and you’ll spend the rest of your days wondering just when that stray bullet will find you.”

Gibbs took his eyes off Kaufman, glancing out the window at the world flying past. Too quickly, he thought, much like the conversation he found himself trapped into. It left him dizzy, unbalanced—a terrible feeling for a man unused to anything but complete control. “You paint a rosy picture of my future,” he said.

“That’s just one possible future,” Kaufman explained. “On the other hand you can look at this meeting for what it is—your way out. You can turn this find over to me and see it brought to its full potential. I have billions set aside to develop this technology, and access to billions more if I need it. I have armies of engineers, powerful friends on Capitol Hill and in the military. And I have time, a luxury you no longer possess.”

Kaufman leaned toward him. “What lies out there is the key to equalizing things, to resetting the vast imbalance between the first and third worlds, to stabilizing what has become a dangerously unstable world.”

“My God,” Gibbs said. “You’re some kind of crusader. You intend to give this away?”

“No,” Kaufman said. “I intend to build a fortune with it. One that will make Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett look like welfare cases. And once I’ve done that I’ll build power plants all over the world. I’ll provide cheaper energy than anyone could have dreamed of—cheaper than coal and oil, cheaper than solar or wind or even hydrothermal power and with none of the environmental drawbacks. In twenty years I’ll control all the electrical power generated in the Western Hemisphere, and even though I will sell it cheap, I’ll produce it for almost nothing. With the profits and influence, I’ll light up the world of the poor. And when the whole planet has equal access to such power, a sense of equilibrium will come to this place that has never existed. No longer will there be three have nots for every one who has.”

As Kaufman spoke, Gibbs wondered just where the man’s greed and nobility intersected, or if he was lying or simply mad. A combination of all four, he decided. “You’re insane, you realize that.”

The charcoal-haired CEO’s eyebrows went up. “Insane is embezzling from your own agency. It’s hiring a group of burned-out mercenaries to search a river bed and following up their disappearance with a group of civilians who will likely meet the same fate. Insane is your place in the world, my friend, not mine.”

Gibbs stewed. Kaufman had hit the mark dead-on; he’d gotten every fear and every angle just about right. Gibbs was greedy but he wasn’t a traitor, and he didn’t fancy himself a sellout or a politician either. Giving up the future wasn’t his big concern; it would come someday regardless of what he did, but the destroyers, as Kaufman had called them, were not forces to be trifled with. Perhaps Kaufman was offering him something better. He chose to bite, at least enough to taste the dish. “And what would such an offer look like?”

Kaufman obliged him. “First, you’ll receive immediate repayment of all the funds that you or your backers have laid out. That should get the investors off your back and allow you to replace any NRI funds that might have gone missing. Second, you’ll receive a one million dollar payment upon recovery and authentication of the artifacts. And finally, you’ll have a position within Futrex, a six-figure salary and a small residual from all net profits.” Kaufman shrugged. “Your cut will be a rounding error somewhere on the bottom line, but in a few years, you’ll make more than you could in ten lifetimes with the NRI. The more we make, the more you’ll make. That ought to guarantee your full cooperation.”

Stuart Gibbs listened in silence, mulling the offer over. “And if I decline?”

“Then one of two things will happen. Either your group in the rainforest will be eliminated before they have a chance to bring you what you want, or the proper authorities will be informed of your activities.”

Gibbs laughed. Kaufman wouldn’t bring the authorities into this, whatever happened. “My people are well protected.”

“Yes,” Kaufman said. “I know who protects them, and how. I promise you, I have all the firepower I need to take them out. The only thing I don’t have is their location, but sooner or later I will. And once I do, your ability to bargain will have expired.”

Gibbs mulled over the offer: ten million dollars or so, when all was said and done. The buyers he’d contacted had deep pockets but they were skeptical. If he could prove what he had, they might pay ten times what Kaufman had offered. Up front and in cash, not spread out over decades. And even that would be a bargain. The technology itself would be worth an unfathomable amount in that time, more than all the oil in Alaska or all the gold in South Africa, and he was being asked to give it up for a pittance.

He glared at Kaufman, galled by the man’s arrogance. And yet, even as he fumed, his black mood began to fade. He could see the offer for what it was: a thieves’ bargain, even if the division of spoils was mostly onesided. This was the way of things, he thought. The rich take from the poor. They pay only a penny and sell for a dollar, but the poor are always grateful for the pennies.

He threw out a counteroffer. “Why not let my people finish the recovery? Whatever we bring out, I’ll give you the first bid.”

“Why?” Kaufman said. “So you can charge me more?”

Gibbs had expected that. He ground his teeth anyway. “And what about my people?”

Kaufman pursed his lips. “They won’t be coming home again, if that’s what you mean.”

Gibbs was silent.

“I’ve seen your roster,” Kaufman added. “At first I couldn’t understand why you chose this particular mix of individuals. But then it hit me; for the most part, they won’t be missed.”

As Gibbs listened to the last point, his face grew stern, almost angry, but not out of sadness. In fact, he had never planned to bring the team home in the first place, not without an accident somewhere along the way—a plane crash or an explosion. But now, and because of Kaufman, no less, one of them was already here: Arnold Moore.

“More deaths,” he noted.

“Yes,” Kaufman said, respectfully. “But none as shocking as Matt Blundin’s. Then again, I suppose he left you no choice.”

Gibbs’ face went blank, an emotionless slate. He hadn’t wanted to kill Blundin, but the security chief had, indeed, left him no choice. In his zeal to find the party responsible for the data theft, Blundin had dug into areas that he’d been ordered to ignore. In doing so he’d uncovered the loose threads in Gibbs’ setup. And though they were irrelevant to the investigation, Blundin couldn’t help but pull on them.

Sooner, rather than later, he would have realized that only Gibbs could change the funding codes, not Danielle, or the accounting clerks or anyone else in the organization. That would have led him to the missing money, to the funding requests for projects that existed only on paper and to the bland reports and unlogged transactions that had moved the project forward. And before long, Matt Blundin would have realized what it all meant. Maybe he’d realized it already and was allowing Gibbs time to fix things. After all, he had been a friend.

Kaufman broke the silence. “I’ll give you twenty-four hours. Have an answer ready.”

Gibbs focused his attention on the world outside. They were in the business district now; he could catch a cab from here. He looked at the driver. “Pull over.”

With a nod from Kaufman, the driver acquiesced and the Mercedes pulled to the curb.

One last warning came from Kaufman. “Don’t be a fool,” he said. “There’s no other choice for you now.”

Gibbs stepped out of the car, slammed the door and watched the shimmering vehicle drive off. He knew his enemy now, and he knew what he had to do. The only question was how to do it without destroying himself in the process.

Black Rain