Back at the base camp, most of the group had reluctantly gone to work, spreading out across the clearing to begin various tasks. Danielle and Verhoven remained at the command center, privately discussing the sudden loss of communications.

“Someone jamming us?” Verhoven asked.

Danielle didn’t think so. She was receiving a response from the network. And though the response continued to indicate that her authorization code was invalid, it meant the signal was getting through and then being rejected. A software failure seemed more likely, either in her system or the one back in Washington. But software could be fixed, and that meant communications could be restored relatively easily. She saw no reason to break radio silence.

“I’ve done all I can on our end,” she said. “They have a check-in scheduled for nineteen hundred tonight. They should notice the problem then and be able to fix it. If they can’t they’ll radio us with instructions on the proper frequency, and we won’t have to give away our position.”

“What did I tell you about this bloody technology,” Verhoven said. “No damn good half the …”

Verhoven’s voice trailed off and he turned to the east. Danielle followed his gaze and heard the sound of a helicopter approaching low across the trees. Hawker had left only an hour before. She wondered why he was coming back.

Verhoven stood up. “Damn!”

An instant later the NOTAR burst out from above the trees and shot across the camp, traveling from east to west.

One look at the armed helicopter was enough. Danielle lunged for the alarm and the air horn went off just as the black, egg-shaped helicopter reached the far side of the clearing and began to pitch up so it could swing back toward the group.

“Hit the smoke!” Verhoven shouted.

Danielle did as he asked and the canisters around them fired in sequence, but as the helicopter finished its turn and came back toward them she realized that smoke wouldn’t be enough. She grabbed her own rifle and began to run.

Verhoven caught her. “Wait.”

“For what?”

“One second!”

The NOTAR had swung through a half circle, gathering speed as it lined her and Verhoven up. Lowering its nose, it disappeared behind the thickening cloud.

“Now!” Verhoven yelled.

They dashed to the right just as the helicopter fired and a spread of lethal cannon fire tore through the spot they’d just left. The craft followed, sweeping through the gathering smoke, dispersing the cloud in its wake.

Verhoven spun around, dropped to a knee and fired, but the helicopter banked and fired into the tents to the south, shredding the thin nylon before passing by. Danielle watched in horror as one of the porters crawled out and collapsed.

By now the other members of the expedition were running toward the center of camp just as they’d practiced—an act that would bring them into the heart of the danger. As the helicopter circled around for another run, she was certain that they’d all be killed.

In a fury, she fired her own rifle, trying to lead the approaching craft. Verhoven did the same, and as shells from the AK-47s whistled through the air, the helicopter pulled up, crossing the camp and flying out over the jungle without hitting anyone else.

It tracked that way for several seconds before turning and following the curved line of the trees, circling the perimeter like a shark.

Danielle noticed Verhoven looking toward the jungle. “We’ll never make it,” she said.

He seemed to agree. “The temple, then,” he said. “It’s our only chance.”

They bolted, sprinting for the ancient Mayan temple and its thick stone walls: the only place in sight that could offer them shelter from the helicopter’s lethal guns.

As they ran toward the temple, Danielle saw McCarter, Susan and one of the porters running away from it in a panic. “Back,” she shouted. “Go back.”

They seemed to get the message, stopping in their tracks and turning around.

The helicopter was turning in once again, dropping in behind the remaining two porters and stirring up huge clouds of dust. It closed on them rapidly, a great beast chasing down prey. Its guns flashed and ribbons of dirt flew up around the men. They tumbled to the ground in awkward heaps and the helicopter buzzed over them and then soared up over the trees once again.

By now Danielle and Verhoven had reached the base of the temple. “Up top,” Verhoven ordered. “Inside!”

As McCarter’s group scrambled up the stairs, Verhoven’s men joined them. The three of them had managed to grab their own rifles and a box of ammunition.

“Damn good,” Verhoven said. “Now move.”

Danielle clambered up the stairs, hearing the NOTAR but not seeing it. She reached the top, took a step forward, then saw the helicopter heading straight for her. She turned and dove back down the stairs just as the pilot fired. Shells skipped off the temple’s roof, burning the air. The NOTAR followed, roaring overhead, ten feet above her.

Now was her chance. Bruised and scratched, she hustled across the roof, squeezing through the portal and into the familiar darkness.

Verhoven’s men followed, but he remained out of sight, even as the chainsaw buzz of the helicopter closed in once again. Seconds later, he dove through the opening, tumbling down the stairs with gunfire chasing him. Shells caromed off the stone roof and several found the opening, ricocheting wildly off the solid walls.

Danielle looked around. Everyone seemed to be okay.

“What the hell is going on?” McCarter shouted.

Danielle ignored him, listening to the noise above. The NOTAR had turned.

“He’s coming back,” she said.

Verhoven looked up at the portal atop the stairs. “Probably going to pour a shit storm of lead through this hole when he gets here.” He turned to Danielle. “Get to the back room. Keep your heads down.”

McCarter led the others into the back room while Verhoven and his men took what cover they could, pressing themselves into the walls that fronted the stairs, crouching and reloading their rifles. Danielle stayed with him.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

Verhoven looked at his men. “When he passes.”

They nodded their understanding.

“What the hell are you going to do?” Danielle demanded.

“We’re going to shoot the bugger down,” Verhoven replied. “He’ll come in slow to try to aim down this slot, but he’s got to keep moving in case we’re not all down here. When he passes we’re going up. It’ll be a firestorm in here before that, so get back there with the others.”

The noise above grew louder. Danielle looked toward the darker recesses of the temple, where the rest of the group had gone. “Screw that,” she said. Six months of weapons training were about to get used.

“Then get behind me,” Verhoven ordered.

Danielle ducked in against the wall behind Verhoven and seconds later all hell broke loose. Cannon fire poured down the gullet of the temple, sending shards and sparks and chunks of stone flying through the chamber.

One ricochet smashed the stone in front of Verhoven, blasting chips out of the wall that bit into his face. He spun backward, knocking into Danielle. Another shot tore the rifle out of his lieutenant’s hand. Three seconds of terror and noise and the NOTAR had passed. The instant it did, Verhoven and the two men who still held guns scrambled up the stairs.

Danielle followed, bursting out into the light just as Verhoven’s group opened fire on the fleeing helicopter. She was surprised at how far away it was and guessed that it had sped up after making its pass.

She brought her own rifle up and then noticed a glowing red dot on the back of the man to her left.

“Get down!” she shouted.

It was too late. The man jerked forward with the impact of the shell, falling face-first into a spray of his own blood.

“Sniper behind us,” she yelled, as the others hit the deck.

She turned and scrambled for the edge. Half a dozen men in fatigues were running toward them from the north. She fired into the pack, scattering the group and taking at least one man down. She pulled back as they returned fire. “Five or six on this side,” she shouted.

“More on this side,” Verhoven yelled back.

Gunfire echoed from both directions and tracers burned the air overhead, crisscrossing above them. In the sky to the east of them the NOTAR had finished its turn and was coming back once again.

Danielle could count only herself, Verhoven and his two remaining men against at least a dozen attackers and a helicopter gunship. It didn’t look good.

“Back inside,” Verhoven shouted. “Go!”

Danielle crawled across the temple and slid through the opening in the roof. Verhoven and the other mercenaries followed, with Verhoven carrying the bloodstained rifle of his dead subordinate. He tossed it to the man whose weapon had been destroyed in the helicopter’s earlier pass.

Crouching in the darkness, Danielle listened as the roar of the approaching helicopter reverberated throughout the temple. “We’re trapped in here,” she said.

“Would you rather be out there?”

She didn’t get a chance to answer as cannon fire poured through the opening again.

Out of frustration, Verhoven fired a burst up the stairs and out into the sky but there was no target in sight.

The NOTAR had passed again, but this time the sound didn’t die away, it only dropped slightly, changing in aspect and then maintaining a constant volume.

“Keeping us pinned down,” Verhoven said. “That means their men are coming up.”

“We’re trapped in here!” Danielle repeated.

“They still have to come in to get us,” Verhoven said. “And when they do we’ll shred them. Get back there with the others,” he said to Danielle. “That’ll give us two lines.” He turned to one of his surviving men. “Go with her.”

Danielle moved to the other room and took a position to fire from. Behind her McCarter tried to help a violently coughing Susan Briggs, while Brazos, the only surviving porter, stood by. They looked at her accusingly.

“Get down!” she ordered, then turned back toward the foyer.

She was ready to fight—to the death, if necessary. But despite what Verhoven had said, their attackers didn’t have to come in to get them. They were trapped like proverbial rats and all their foes had to do now was close the cage. Instead of wading into a withering fire they could simply push the stone back into place and seal the temple. The NRI team would starve, or die of thirst, or probably suffocate long before that. Verhoven knew this of course, but what choice did they have? A charge up the stairs would be suicide. She hoped the enemy would be stupid enough to come in.

The oppressive droning of the helicopter crept closer, like a monstrous swarm of bees. The wind from its downwash poured into the opening as heavy boots began pounding across the stone roof.

“Get ready,” Verhoven shouted. In a minute there would be gunfire and flames and death.

Danielle drew back behind the wall and gripped the rifle, gritting her teeth as she waited. For a moment nothing happened.

Above them, the noise of the helicopter lessened a bit and the footsteps ceased as the men crowded around the opening. But still nothing happened.

She began to wonder if there would be a chance of surrender or even the possibility of negotiation. Perhaps these men would be reasonable. Perhaps they could be bluffed or bought. And then she heard it: clunk … clunk … clunk—a metal object bouncing down the stairs, heavy, solid, relentless. She turned away and shut her eyes.

A blinding flash came through her eyelids, accompanied by an earth-shattering explosion that slammed her into the stone wall and sent her sprawling onto the floor. She lay there dazed and almost unconscious, her ears ringing. She tasted blood in her mouth. She was dimly aware of the others in similar straits—Susan lying prone on the ground, McCarter crawling feebly on his hands and knees. She couldn’t see Verhoven or either of his two men.

She looked for her rifle. It lay on the stone, ten feet away. It might as well have been a mile. With great effort she managed a crawling position and began moving toward it. But then she heard the sound again; another metal object tumbling down the stairs. It hit the bottom and rolled across the stone floor.

She closed her eyes tightly and covered her head … waiting, waiting, waiting for an explosion. But there was only a soft pop and then a forceful hissing, like air escaping a tire. She looked into the foyer, to see white vapor spraying from a long, cylindrical can. She smelled some type of chemical. And then her eyes lost focus and she crumpled into oblivion.

Black Rain