Michael Laurence studied biology and creative writing at the University of Colorado and holds multiple advanced certifications in medical imaging.
Before becoming a full-time author, he worked as an X-ray/CT/MRI technologist and clinical instructor. He lives in suburban Denver with his wife, four children, and a couple of crazy Labrador Retrievers.
The following is an excerpt from “The Extinction Agenda.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Thriller
Hickiwan District | Tohono O’odham Nation | Arizona
There are no shadows in the valley of death.
The sun blazes with such ferocity that anything resembling shade evaporates, like every last drop of water in this godforsaken desert—with the exception of the sweat that started soaking through the navy blue windbreakers of the FBI agents the moment they stepped out of the green- and-white Border Patrol Explorer, of course. It wasn’t even seven in the morning yet and already it had to be over a hundred degrees. Wavering ribbons of heat rose from the brick-red sands, making the creosotes and chollas and ocotillos appear to burn with invisible flames. A diamondback’s rattle buzzed from somewhere behind a snarled mass of flowering prickly pears.
Crazy to think that this desolate and essentially uninhabitable corridor was one of the most hotly contested regions on the planet.
Special Agent James Mason paused in the sparse shade of a saguaro cactus, lifted his ball cap, and wiped the sweat from his brow with his forearm. His close-cropped blond hair was already soaked. He reseated his hat, tugged down the brim to shield his eyes, and scrutinized the cloudless sky over the rocky crest uphill for the first sign of what was in store for them in the canyon on the other side. Supervisory Agent Javier Velasquez, the Border Patrol agent who’d driven them out here from Ajo Station, stood silhouetted against the rising sun. One of his best trackers was waiting for them at the site of the discovery he’d called in just over two hours ago.
By the time Mason reached the top, Velasquez was already picking his way down the eastern slope through a maze of cacti and paloverdes toward a dry wash lined with ironwoods and hackberry trees on this side and a stratified red escarpment on the other. They were roughly twenty miles north of the Arizona-Mexico border, twenty-five in every direction from anything that could pass for civilization, and deep in the Ajo Mountains.
Mason caught a glimpse of a dark hunched shape in the streambed as he glanced through the branches of an ironwood, the emerald leaves of which shimmered like a viper’s scales. He raised his hand to block out the sun and again scanned the cloudless sky.
“Where are all the carrion birds?”
Special Agent Spencer Kane clapped him on the shoulder as he passed.
“You figure out in a hurry that any exertion costs you hydration, and once you start losing fluids, there’s just about no way of getting them back.” He was tall and had the kind of physique that made it impossible to determine his age. His Nordic blue eyes were framed by crow’s-feet and his hair had faded from blond to silver, but he carried himself with the air of a man in his prime. “First lesson you need to learn out here. Don’t waste your energy. Even the buzzards know that.”
Mason followed Kane to the edge of the trees, where the branches still shook from Velasquez’s passage. They’d only been partners for a few years, but they went way back. Kane had personally recruited Mason at a time when the latter desperately needed to find his direction in life, then served as something of a long-distance mentor through the FBI Academy in Quantico and Mason’s first posting in the Twin Cities. He’d been instrumental not only in bringing Mason back home to the Denver Field Office, but in securing his assignment to this high-profile strike force, which would be a nice feather in his protégé’s professional cap.
“Remember that human-trafficking ring we shut down a while back?” Mason asked.
“Bastards knew they were about to get caught, so they killed those poor girls and buried them out in the corn rows.”
“We spent three months tracking them and still might never have found the farm where they were holed up if it hadn’t been for all the crows in the fields.”
“You think we’re wasting our time here?”
“I sure as hell hope so.”
They pressed through the thorny branches and hopped down from the bank onto the coarse gravel and silt. Mason hadn’t noticed there’d been a gentle breeze until it was gone. The air was heavy and oppressive. A horrible stench hit him squarely in the face. He covered his mouth and nose, but the damage was already done. The smell of decomposition was already lodged in his sinuses.
Velasquez stood with his back to them, conferring with his subordinate, who glanced up at them with an expression of apprehension, if not outright suspicion. He had Hispanic dark skin and eyes and wore the standard forest green paramilitary uniform all USBP enforcers wore in the field, with a Heckler & Koch P2000 .40-caliber semiautomatic on one hip and a telescoping steel baton on the other. He acknowledged them with a nod.
The dirt crunched underfoot as they approached. Mason stopped short when he saw the reason they’d been summoned all the way out here and whistled appreciatively.
“Now that’s what I call a taxidermist’s wet dream,” Kane said. “Now … just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend I’m not a taxidermist. How about instead I’ll be a federal agent who was unceremoniously awakened from a dream co-starring the lovely Sofía Vergara and has yet to have his first cup of coffee.”
“Lead Border Patrol Agent Rafael Silva,” Velasquez said by way of introduction. “These men represent the FBI on the Bradley Strike Force. Special Agents Kane and…”
“Mason,” he said, and shook Silva’s dirty hand. “Special Agent James Mason.”
“Wonderful,” Kane said with a clap. “Now that we’re all old friends, why don’t you tell me, Lead Agent Silva, what in the name of God does any of this have to do with me?”
Silva glanced at his boss, who gestured for him to proceed.
“I was cutting sign down off the Destruya Drag—”
“That means he was searching for tracks or any other indication that undocumented aliens had recently passed through,” explained Velasquez, interrupting.
“Right. We’d just busted up a route the smugglers had been using for a while, so we knew word would get back to the coyotes and they’d be forced to adapt on the fly. Branch off their usual path somewhere south of here. I picked up sign about three miles down the wash and followed the tracks until I caught a whiff of this stench.”
Mason scrutinized the trail leading in their direction from the south. There was a riot of footprints, one set trampled on top of another. Staggering gaits. Uneven treads. At least six distinct sets of tracks. There were disturbances in the dirt, where it looked as though one of them had fallen and struggled to rise again.
“What kind of time frame are we looking at?” he asked.
“Just over twenty-four hours. Night before last. Maybe a couple hours before sunrise.”
There were dark splotches all over the ground. The fluid had congealed into the dirt as it dried. Mason used a twig to excavate one patch and rolled it over. Blood. No doubt about it.
“And you’re basing that deduction on what? The tracks?”
“I could read this sign in my sleep. These people weren’t trying to be sneaky. They were in big trouble and they knew it.”
At the heart of the pattern of droplets was an impression in the dirt shaped like a man, had he fallen diagonally forward and landed on his shoulder and face. The upper half of the imprint was smoothed into a shallow trench. Someone or something had come along and dragged the body upstream and around the bend, obliterating its own tracks in the process.
“Figure they were mules?” Kane asked. “Maybe one of the rival cartels—”
“No.” Mason studied the clumps of dried blood. The smell. It was more than just death. There was something wrong with the smell. He covered his mouth and nose with his sleeve. “They were sick.”
“Well, that would explain all of the birds.”
Mason had to step over and around the avian carcasses, decomposing where they’d fallen, as he walked to the north. They littered the streambed for as far as he could see. Massive turkey vultures and crested caracaras and crows, which seemed tiny by comparison. Crusted blood on their beaks. Feathers disheveled and lusterless. Eyes sunken. Positively crawling with black flies.
They say the meek shall inherit the earth, but he was convinced it would be the flies.
“So, then, where are the bodies of the people who came through here?”
Mason stared to the east. He was pretty sure he could see flares leaping from the sun, which seemed to be getting closer as it ascended. They’d be lucky if the mercury didn’t top 115.
If the corpses were still out here, he had a hunch that after a full day in this heat they wouldn’t be incredibly hard to find.
Six sets of footprints turned to five, then five to four.
It was easy to tell where the bodies had fallen. They’d left contorted impressions in the dirt, droplets of congealed blood, and the drag marks that highlighted their posthumous northern migration. That, and the concentration of dead carrion birds clustered around the imprints.
“We should be wearing biohazard suits,” Velasquez said for the hundredth time. “These birds are probably breeding disease and we’re breathing the germs right now!”
“Then we’re already dead,” Kane said. He didn’t appear worried in the slightest.
Mason wished he shared his partner’s confidence. He had a new bride waiting for him back home in Colorado, who’d undoubtedly prefer it if he didn’t return with some nasty pathogen. Or in a box.
He counted forty-three dead birds over roughly a two-mile stretch. Apart from the flies, nothing had attempted to scavenge them.
Four sets of tracks became three. Two of those remaining collapsed next to each other. Silva said the lone remaining walker had pulled on their arms in an effort to get them to stand again, before kicking sand everywhere in frustration and continuing onward to the north.
They intermittently lost the sole set of tracks, thanks to the drag marks from the others. No effort had been made to brush them away. It was a contradiction that the bodies had been used to erase the prints of those dragging them, and yet the trail they had left in the process might as well have been illuminated with running lights. It was almost as though—
Mason glanced over at Silva. He’d stopped off to the left and crouched over the drag marks. He fingered the edge. The expression on his face betrayed his recognition a heartbeat before his hand found the butt of his pistol. He’d come to the very same conclusion.
The birds and the trail hadn’t been deliberately left behind. Whoever had made them simply hadn’t had the opportunity to erase them yet.
Mason drew his Glock 23 FG&R and sighted down the streambed ahead, where it bent back to the east around the sandstone outcropping. The ironwoods lining the bend were so dense, he could barely see the ridge behind them.
It was the perfect place for an ambush.
“What’s going on?” Velasquez said.
Kane’s eyes locked onto Mason’s. He had a two-handed grip on his own sidearm, which he directed down at the sand between his feet.
A high-pitched buzzing sound erupted from the valley ahead of them.
“ATV,” Silva whispered.
Kane took off at a sprint as the whine of another engine joined the first. Then another still.
“Call for tactical support!” Mason shouted back over his shoulder. “I want ground teams converging on our location! And get a bird in the air! Now!”
He took off after Kane, who rounded the bend without bothering to clear it. He heard Velasquez barking orders into his transceiver behind him as he went low around the stone embankment.
The buzzing sound grew more distant by the second.
The ravine wound to the east before opening into a straightaway. Kane was a good ten strides ahead of Mason, but he was closing the gap fast. He could hardly hear the motors over his heavy tread and even heavier breathing. His body was already overheating.
By the time they found the ATV tracks, the sound was a memory. He doubled over to catch his breath and watched the sweat dripping from his face onto the sand. Kane paced with his hands on his hips, sucking wind, until the others caught up.
“We have vehicles en route from both directions on Highway Eighty-six,” Velasquez said. “Maybe five minutes out.”
“It’s already too late.” Kane snatched the two-way out of the Border Patrol agent’s hand. “They’re long gone.”
Mason could barely see the single set of footprints they’d been following beneath all of the new prints, which had been made by large men wearing heavy-duty work boots. There were so many that he hesitated to even wager a guess as to how many men had arrived on what appeared to have been four-wheel all-terrain vehicles.
The faint thupping sound of chopper blades materialized from the west and he saw the dark shape of an ICE—Immigration and Customs Enforcement—Black Hawk streak across the sky.
“They found the last one over there.” Silva pointed to a small swatch of shade behind a boulder. “No sign of a struggle.”
“Any indication of what they might have been smuggling?”
“All I can tell you is that if they were moving anything, it couldn’t have been in any kind of quantity. Their footprints are too shallow and the distance between them is too long. They couldn’t have been carrying anything much heavier than the clothes on their backs.”
“Then what the hell happened here?”
“They couldn’t have gotten four ATVs onto anything smaller than a tractor trailer!” Kane shouted into the two-way. “I want roadblocks set up on Eighty-six east of Why and west of Tucson! Search every semi and horse trailer and get me another goddamn Black Hawk!”
He thrust the transceiver into Velasquez’s chest, turned, and bellowed at the top of his lungs. A startled flock of doves took flight from a thicket of paloverdes as his voice echoed away into oblivion.
“Come on,” he said. “We’ve got a long walk ahead of us.”