Time of Death Alex Barclay

To Mary Maddison


Eleven years ago, an organized crime operation was dismantled following a year-long undercover operation in which FBI Special Agent Ren Bryce infiltrated the inner circle of its head, Domenica Val Pando.

On the night that Val Pando was to be arrested, the compound was burned to the ground by a rival gang and Val Pando escaped with her husband and young son.

Her whereabouts remain unknown.


El Paso, Texas

Erubiel Diaz lay curled on the wet floor of the soiled gas station restroom. He had been violently ill. But to a man with damaged senses, a weakened stomach and voided bowels could never be anything more than a physical condition. It could never be the bad omen that he had been foolish to ignore. As a result, his instinct that morning had not been to turn back, but to hook a fingernail into a small bag of white powder and take in a pure cocaine rush. Outside, a car radio crackled with a thunderstorm warning. Within hours, the searing heat was set to be broken by quarter-sized hail.

Erubiel Diaz now stood in the cobbled courtyard of a million-dollar home on the west side of the Franklin Mountains. Diaz was squat and muscular, short-limbed and heavy-browed. He was wearing a yellow sleeveless T- shirt and black shorts to his calves. His body, his clothes, hadn’t been washed in days. He was a dark blot in a space that was filled with light, with flowers, plants and trees that he would have recognized if he was the landscape gardener on his van’s fake sign. Only the plant by the living-room window looked familiar to him. Something to do with a bird.

Diaz had a round, lined face, sallow skin, and bloodshot eyes. He squinted against the bright sunshine that bounced off the white walls of the Spanish-style house. He had done what he came here to do. As he made his move to leave, he heard a car pull up outside. The security gates to his left slid slowly open. He pressed himself against the cool stone of the perimeter wall.

The woman who stepped out of the car was nothing like the women he paid for, or took for free, nothing like the worn-out mother of his children. This woman was tall and delicate, with fine blonde hair to her shoulders and a light, freckled tan. She wore a long, flowing skirt, and a white cotton blouse. Three gold bangles shone on her slender wrist. Her polished toenails were the color of the flowers beneath the window. Diaz looked down at his feet. They were wedged into Tevas that were a size too small – their criss-crossed straps digging into his flesh. His toes were short, covered with black hair, their nails caked in dirt.

Diaz checked his watch. It was an absent glance; no matter where the hands pointed, he knew what time it was. What he could not have known as he lurched forward and slammed the woman face-down onto the trunk of her car, was that he had just sent those hands spiraling wildly toward his time of death.

The sound of the woman’s breath as it was forced from her lungs died in the rumble of the forecast thunder. The charcoal sky exploded with light. And the woman watched as the quarter-sized hail came crashing down, severing the fiery blossoms of the Red Bird of Paradise.


Special Agent Ren Bryce pulled into the parking lot of The Rocky Mountain Safe Streets Task Force office. She reached out to turn off the radio.

‘Coming up next,’ said the presenter, ‘we take a look at Denver’s Fifty Most Wanted. The list will be released later today by the Rocky Mountain Safe Streets Task Force and the US Marshals office…’

Ren turned to her back-seat passenger.

‘Coming up next, Misty – you and me in the office, trying to find these assholes.’

Misty was the black-and-white border collie she had adopted seven months earlier when her owner was killed. Her collar had a special engraving: ‘I Smell Dead People’. Misty and Ren were recent graduates of cadaver dog training school – Misty’s second time, Ren’s first. But there were no plans to put her to work. For now, Misty’s skills were on the down low.

Ren’s boss, Supervisory Special Agent Gary Dettling, had given Misty security clearance for the week, so she could spend it in the office, instead of Ren’s temporary motel home.

When Gary Dettling set up The Rocky Mountain Safe Streets Task Force, the maverick in him chose a building that was a piece of Denver’s agricultural history. The Livestock Exchange Building, red brick, four stories high, was one of the few buildings in Denver that had its original interior: polished marble floors and grand mahogany staircases. It started out as home to the Denver Union Stockyard Company and one hundred years on, still kept a link to its roots; the Colorado Brand Inspectors’ office was on the second floor, Maverick Press was on the third: cowboys still had a home in the Livestock Exchange Building.

Gary Dettling was the straightest maverick Ren knew. He had created something that shook things up – a multi-agency task force – yet he ran it with a tight grip on the reins. The nine-man one-woman team worked from a bullpen. There were no formal partners, but two years earlier, within months of Ren Bryce starting there, she had fallen into a natural group with the three men who sat around her – Cliff James, Colin Grabien and Robbie Truax. A filing cabinet to Ren’s left and one to Colin’s right created a subtle break in the room to seal the deal.

Ren secured Misty in her quarters and headed down the hallway to her office. She threw her coat on the stand by the door and hung her gray suit jacket on the back of her chair. Her work wardrobe was always a slim-fit black or gray suit, a top in whatever color matched her mood in the morning, and black three-inch heels. Years earlier, Ren had bought an Armani pant suit after a drunken lunch-time date. She had no idea where it was, but the forgeries – expertly made by her mother, Kitty – were holding up well.

Cliff James was the only person in the office when Ren arrived.

Cliff was ex-Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, fifty-two years old, a big warm bear with a face set to perma-smile. Happy family life, happy man.

Ren turned to him. ‘My motel room is the type of place a man called Randy would take a girl called Bonnie in his pick-up on a Friday night when her trucker husband, also called Randy, is out of town.’

‘Does it have a heart-shaped bed?’ said Cliff.

‘To Randy and Bonnie, every bed is heart-shaped.’

‘God bless them and the illegitimate offspring Randy-the-husband will unknowingly have to bring up as his own.’

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