The machine was quiet now, still and dark. It had come blasting through the trees like a missile, only to be swallowed up by the rainforest’s living depth. But despite the boasts of the NOTAR’s pilot, the Huey hadn’t exploded or burned. In fact, an hour after the crash, most of its fuel had drained harmlessly into the ground.

After a brief moment of unconsciousness, Hawker had woken and managed to extricate himself and Polaski from the wreckage. He’d carried Polaski’s inert form to a fallen tree twenty yards away, where a rag soaked in cold water had helped him come to.

In obvious pain, Polaski mumbled incoherently, his eyes half-open.

“Cold,” he said. “So cold …”

Hawker covered Polaski with his jacket and the Mylar blanket from the survival kit, but the man continued to shiver.

Polaski was in grave condition. A wound to his head had swollen badly. Several ribs seemed to be broken and small amounts of bloody bubbles were dribbling from his mouth, enough to tell Hawker that he was bleeding internally.

“Help me,” he said, looking past Hawker. “Please … my daughter.”

A surgeon with a sterile operating room might have been able to save Polaski, but there was little Hawker could do except watch him die.

“You’re going to be all right,” he said, lying. “You’re both going to be all right. Just try to be calm.”

“It’s so cold.”

Polaski seemed to look past Hawker for a moment, and then his eyes closed. His chest stopped moving and the bubbles were gone.

“I’m sorry,” Hawker whispered. It seemed a foolish, worthless thing to say but the words came anyway.

Feeling drowsy, Hawker rubbed the back of his neck. He guessed that he’d been unconscious for a minute or two. He might have even sustained a concussion. He couldn’t let himself go back under without taking a chance on never waking up again.

He forced himself to stand and began to walk in circles. His legs felt heavy and soft, like they were made of wet sand. He shook and stretched and flexed, trying to force some energy into his lifeless muscles.

Pain racked every part of his body. His ribs and neck ached from whiplash and the restraint of the seat belt, his hands were bruised and cut from flailing about the cockpit, half-coagulated blood oozed from a gash across his cheekbone, just beneath his right eye.

At least he was alive.

He looked down at Polaski. There had been a moment when he considered the possibility that Polaski was a mole. The guy was a volunteer who worked the communications system; he was polite and quiet, never drawing attention to himself, exactly the way a mole is supposed to act. But that assessment had been wrong. Polaski was just a kind, mild man who’d wanted to add a little adventure to his life. He’d joined the expedition not knowing the danger he was in, because Danielle and Moore and Hawker had kept it hidden. He deserved more than being left for the animals in the jungle.

Hawker pulled a collapsible shovel from his survival pack and assembled it. With a push from his boot, he forced it into the soil, turned it over and raised the shovel up for another strike. As he began to dig, his heartbeat rose and the fog in his mind receded bit by bit. Thoughts began jumping around, jumbled and confused at first, like images trying to find their correct spot.

The attack and its aftermath seemed clearer, but it left him wondering who had done it and why.

It had to be the same people who attacked Danielle and him at the harbor, but no contact of his had been able to dig up any information on them. That meant heavy hands were in the mix somewhere, keeping a lid on the truth.

With no way of determining who had attacked them, he focused on why.

Obviously, they wanted whatever Danielle and the NRI were after, but what that was he still didn’t know. It had to be related to the temple. His first thought was the artifacts they’d been uncovering and preserving.

McCarter had warned them that the trade in ancient artifacts was a fairly profitable enterprise, rife with theft, smuggling and a thriving black market. But how much could such things really be worth? Thousands? Tens of thousands, maybe. Not enough for what he’d seen. A knife in the back, perhaps, or a couple of leg-breakers in a dark alley, but not a purpose-built weapons platform like the NOTAR. The gun pods alone would run a million dollars.

What, then? Diamonds? Gold? Could they really be after something so base? He jammed the shovel downward again. It didn’t make sense. The NRI was a strategic organization. They would only be here after something important on a political or worldly level. And the only thing that still generated that type of need was oil.

While the price of a barrel continued to fluctuate, it escaped no one that the Middle East was just a few bombs from utter chaos. A big strike in a friendly, democratic nation would be welcome. And at times sulfur could be a geologic clue to oil deposits, but for all the criteria that particular guess happened to fit, it was still a square peg in a round hole.

To begin with, the Brazilians didn’t need the NRI to find their oil for them, and the NRI certainly couldn’t pump it out in secret if they did. For that matter, nor could any adversary. So what would be the point?

No, he decided, this was not a race to stake some kind of claim; it was a burglary, a smash-and-grab job. Two thieves fighting over the jewels in someone else’s house. Whatever the two groups were after, it would be portable and a non-commodity, something that had value merely by being possessed.

Hawker stood up straight, wiped the sweat from his eyes and conceded that the answer was beyond him. He couldn’t guess the who or the why of the incident—but as his eyes fell to the man he was about to bury he suddenly became clear on the how.

To Hawker and Polaski and everyone else at the NRI base camp, the flight had been an unscheduled one, a last-minute errand that had become necessary only upon learning of the tragedy in Washington. But to someone somewhere else, the flight had been more than expected. It had been planned with meticulous precision, designed to put Hawker and Polaski in exactly the right place at exactly the wrong time.

There was no other logical explanation. The NOTAR had to have come from a good distance away. To make the intercept, its pilot would need to know precisely when Hawker and Polaski would be transiting the area. A change of ten minutes in either direction would have blown it.

But of course there hadn’t been ten minutes to wait. In order to get Polaski to Washington in time they’d had to leave the jungle immediately. That was the setup; the accident involving Polaski’s daughter was only the trigger.

There was a chance that the accident involving Polaski’s daughter had been a hoax; it made the details of the situation and the message somewhat easier to control. Then again, such a bluff came with its own problems, problems of veracity or confirmation that might expose the truth and rule it out.

If there was one thing he’d learned over the past decade, it was how evil men could be to their fellow man. Not just violent or in conflict but utterly evil in the pursuit of their own goals. Such men might easily destroy a whole family just to move one piece on the chessboard.

Putting the shovel aside, Hawker ground his teeth. Whether the accident was real or not, Polaski had died thinking his only daughter was near death herself. A man destroyed or an entire family. And in ways both direct and indirect, Hawker had played a part.

Racked with guilt, Hawker laid Polaski gently in the shallow grave, folding the man’s arms neatly across his chest. As he began to cover Polaski’s body with earth, the weight of the man’s death pressed down on him. He recalled his gleeful bargain with Danielle. In fact, he remembered it was he who had suggested the deal, offering his silence and loyalty for her assistance, arrogantly believing he could protect those who had come along for the ride without apprising them of the danger. His silence had become part of the chain of events that had gotten Polaski killed, and perhaps Polaski’s daughter as well. It had helped convince the others that they were safe.

The others …

Hawker began to wonder what had become of them. If their enemy knew Hawker and Polaski’s route across the jungle, it meant they had to know where it originated: the closely guarded location of the temple. Surely they would not wait long before moving in on the clearing. In all likelihood the attacks had come simultaneously or nearly so.

“God help us,” he whispered, covering Polaski with more of the dark Amazonian soil. “God help us all.”

Hawker finished burying Polaski in complete silence, his mind growing numb as it churned in circles. He tamped the soil down and said a short prayer, concluding with a verse that he thought about often, one that seemed appropriate for both Polaski and himself. “And the Lord sayeth, Come to me all ye who labor and are heavy burdened. I will give you rest.”

He smoothed the dark earth of Polaski’s grave with his hand. “Rest well, Polaski,” he said.

Standing, Hawker was now forced to grapple with a larger decision. He had to get moving, had to try to get help to his friends. But how?

The smart bet was to head for the river and take it east. Sooner or later a boat would pick him up and he could make a radio call. He could reach someone in the NRI. Moore or Gibbs or someone who knew of the operation and could coordinate a response, one with sufficient numbers and equipment to deal with whoever had done this thing. But even with the best of luck, it might be a week or so before someone picked him up and another week before help arrived.

Too much time.

By then their enemy would be gone and the rest of the NRI team missing or dead. They might be already. He thought of McCarter and Susan and the porters hired for a hundred bucks a day. He thought of Danielle and closed his eyes.

With a fire in his heart stoked by bunkers of anger and guilt, Hawker grabbed his survival pack, checked to be sure his gun was present and heaved the pack over his shoulder. He took a deep breath, set his jaw and turned to the west, heading back toward the clearing instead of away from it.

He would not abandon the others to a callous and murdering enemy, not when his own part in the deception weighed so heavily on his mind. He would make his way back to the clearing on foot, an action that would bring about another war and great shedding of blood—something he’d spent years trying desperately to avoid.

It had become unavoidable now. The darkness had made a home in his soul once again and it drove him on. He would return to the clearing and save his friends or he’d bury their killers, one by one.

Black Rain