Collecting the Dead: A Novel

Collecting the Dead: A Novel

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781427273376
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Publication date: 06/28/2016
Series: Special Tracking Unit , #1
Edition description: Unabridged
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 5.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Spencer Kope is the Crime Analyst for the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office. Currently assigned to Detectives Division, he provides case support to detectives and deputies, and is particularly good at identifying possible suspects. In his spare time he developed a database-driven analytical process called Forensic Vehicle Analysis (FVA) used to identify the make, model and year range of vehicles from surveillance photos. It's a tool he's used repeatedly to solve crimes. Collecting the Dead is his first novel. One of his favorite pastimes is getting lost in a bookstore, and he lives in Washington State.

Read an Excerpt

Collecting the Dead

By Spencer Kope

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Spencer Kope
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8483-0


June 15, 10:12 A.M.

She had small feet.

I say she had small feet because to say she has small feet would imply that she's still alive. She isn't. I know. I always know. It's my special ability, my burden, my curse. The others think we're searching for a missing jogger, perhaps hurt or lost but certainly alive. I can't tell them we're too late; how would I explain such knowledge?

They wouldn't believe me anyway.

People are reluctant to give up the dead.

I turn the shoe in my hand, looking at it from every angle. It's a random selection from her closet made prior to my arrival, standard procedure for a track like this. I scrutinize the wear on the sole, the indentations on the leather, the signs of strain on the strap, as if to do so is to unfold and expose the mystery of her walking style, the way she carried herself, the way she sometimes dragged her left foot ever so slightly, almost undetectably.

You get to know shoes in my line of work: women's shoes, men's shoes, and, sadly, kids' shoes. This one is an ankle-strap pump with three-inch heel and leather upper. Not high-end, but nice nonetheless. I know that she last wore it about two weeks ago ... but that part won't be in my report.

"Can you track her?" Sergeant Anderson asks.

I nod, but say nothing, pretending to examine the shoe further for the sake of my audience, which now includes four deputies, a dozen Search and Rescue volunteers, and my partner, FBI Special Agent Jimmy Donovan. The truth is I don't need to know how she walked, what her gait was, or whether she favored the ball of her foot or the heel. But illusions must be maintained.

Newsweek once called me the Human Bloodhound. I'm sure it conjured up the image they were looking for, wrong as that image was. If only they knew. If only they could see what a fraud I am.

"You said her husband reported her missing?" I say to the sergeant.

"Last night," Anderson replies. "Said she went for a run after work, as she always does, and never returned. That was sometime after five P.M."

"And there's nowhere else she would have gone? No other trails she runs?"

"None that the husband was aware of. She mostly stuck near home."

"Where is he? The husband?"

"He's in the house, resting."


"He walked the loop four times last night looking for her before he called it in."

"Four times, huh?"

"Yep. And he walked it again this morning with us."

Taking off my glasses and securing them in their leather case, I stand for a moment and study the back of Ann Buerger's modest two-story home. My eyes follow her footsteps out the back door, across the lawn, and to the dirt and gravel trail at my feet. The steps lead north, quickly widening from a walk to a steady jog within the first twenty yards.

"The trail's a three-mile loop," Anderson says, "though you can turn off after the first mile and take the shortcut back just before the trail starts rising to Bowman Summit. SAR has walked the whole thing three times." He lifts his chin toward the Search and Rescue team. "They also checked the shortcut. There's no sign of her."

I nod. "Let's do it, then, step by step."

The trail starts off level as it skirts the western edge of Crest View, a community of ninety-seven single-family homes thirty miles west of Portland and just northwest of Henry Hagg Lake. The houses are a random mix of ranches, colonials, and the occasional split-foyer. It's considered an upscale neighborhood in this part of Oregon, and without exception the lawns are neatly cared for and the sidewalks are clean; a nice neighborhood by any standard.

Jimmy and I lead the way and set a brisk pace. The gentle trail around Crest View soon morphs into a steady incline that surreptitiously sucks the breath from your lungs. After the first mile at a ten-degree incline, I'm breathing hard and getting pissed at Jimmy, who's whistling the theme from Mission Impossible and looking like he's having the time of his life. It's not that I'm in bad shape, I can run ten miles with the best of them; I just prefer to do it a half mile at a time with twenty-four-hour breaks in between.

Turning, I wave Sergeant Anderson up from the back of the caravan. He looks like he's spent a fair amount of time donut-diving at the office, and right now I need an anchor to slow Jimmy. The sergeant's huffing pretty hard when he reaches us and I stop to let him catch his breath. Mission Impossible falters and then stops.

"What's up?" Jimmy asks.

"Just taking a breather," I say casually, tilting my head ever so slightly toward Anderson's sweaty face while trying to look unscathed by the hike.

Jimmy nods and takes a pull of water from his CamelBak, then asks Anderson, "What's the summit like?"

"I know what you're thinking," the sergeant pants, nodding his head as if he's been waiting for this question. "We looked over the side and couldn't find any evidence of someone falling." He gulps for breath from talking too fast. "It's not a straight drop, either, so if she lost her footing and went over" — gulp — "she would have left gouges in the dirt, uprooted plants, that sort of thing." Gulp, gulp, gasp. "Besides, the path is wide enough that she wouldn't have had to get near the edge."

"So if it doesn't drop straight off, I assume you can't see the bottom very well from the summit?"

"Not unless you tie off and rope out a bit."

"Has anyone done that?" Jimmy takes another drink from the CamelBak, a long one this time, and then secures it.

"Scott Johnson and Marty Horvath," Anderson replies, wiping his forehead and neck with a soiled ivory handkerchief. Stuffing the damp rag into his back pocket, he turns and quickly scans the faces of those behind us, then points at two of the younger and more athletic SAR members toward the rear. "That's them. Scott's the skinny one on the right. They both know how to rappel and couldn't wait to hook up. Fools wanted to start in the dark, but I made them wait until first light this morning. They had a pretty good look but didn't see anything. Course, the summit covers a good quarter mile."

"How high is it?" Jimmy asks, but he doesn't look all that interested in the answer, nor is he watching the trail, me, or Sergeant Anderson; his eyes are wandering from the twisted trunk of a deformed tree, to a chattering squirrel calling out a warning from a nearby branch, to a red-tailed hawk circling overhead, silhouetted against a powder-blue sky with the sun ticking slowly toward noon.

Jimmy's a hiker. He's also a pretty good tracker in his own right. I don't know what it is about him and the wildlands: the hills, the game trails, the isolated lakes in hard-to-reach valleys. I don't think even he knows, not really, but you can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice every time we hit the trail: he loves the forest.

I hate it.

Every time we end up in the bush it seems a body is involved. It started off as missing hunters who succumbed to the elements, and out-of-shape hikers who put too many demands on their hearts. These days it's mostly homicide victims and suspicious deaths. That's not what bothers me, though. The forest and I have history. And not the good kind, either.

I've often wondered if I'm the butt of some cosmic joke. Why else would God take a kid whose favorite saying was, "Homey don't camp," and make him the world's greatest tracker — and not even a real tracker, but someone who has to pretend?

Jimmy says he wouldn't.

But we live by the lie, Jimmy and I. The truth is a deep secret kept only because it would be too hard for most to believe. It's my life and even I have trouble with it.

God lovates me.

That's the word I came up with when I was fifteen as I struggled to decide whether God loves me or hates me, and settled on both. Lovate. I like the word; it's schizophrenic. As I grew older, however, I realized that God didn't really hate me ... much ... and that my special tracking ability is really a gift, like when the Greeks left that nice horse for the Trojans.

So here I am, once again in the woods. It's the third track this week. The other two were easy; in and out within hours. One was on the outskirts of Atlanta. The stabbed and beaten body of a twenty-three-year-old male was found in the bushes next to a playground. The trail was strong and led us to a gang house three blocks away. It was amazing how quickly the gang members turned on one another when detectives started talking about murder charges.

The other track was in the dilapidated ruins of old Detroit. The PD thought the guy had been beaten to death, but it turned out he fell from the roof of an abandoned warehouse, hitting several obstructions on the way down and landing in the middle of the alley. It was a high price to pay for a couple dollars of stolen copper.

All in all it had been an easy week. No trees. No forests. No juggernaut of mosquitoes, ticks, flies, spiders, and gnats.

I won't be so lucky this time around.

As we start off again, Sergeant Anderson says, "So ... Steps, huh? How'd you get a nickname like that?"

A couple responses immediately come to mind, but Jimmy keeps telling me I get testy when we're in the woods and that I need to relax and be nice. He says I need to think about what I'm saying before I say it ... which is what I thought I was doing.

He got his master's in psychology before joining the Bureau.

What the hell does he know?

"My real name is Magnus Craig," I say to Anderson, "but everyone's been calling me Steps since I was about fourteen, even Mom. That's the summer I did my first Search and Rescue."

"Missing hiker?"

"Worse. Two boys, aged five and eight. They wandered away from a campsite and it was already getting dark by the time I showed up. Someone said, 'How you gonna track them in the dark?' and I just said, 'Step by step.' Thirty minutes later I found the boys huddled in the hollow of a mossy old stump, scared to death but otherwise unharmed."

I pause and crouch on the trail, bringing the whole caravan to a halt. My eyes dance over nonexistent evidence on the ground, feigning curiosity at imaginary signs of passage. Appearances, I remind myself, must keep up appearances at all times. It's simple, really: a pause here and there, the occasional puzzled look, fingers working in the air as they help "read" the trail. Appearances. I learned that the hard way.

Standing, I start forward once more, the caravan lurching along behind. "By the time we reached the campground that night," I tell Anderson, "everyone was saying it was like I could see the boys' footsteps painted on the ground. Crazy, right? Then one of the deputies tossed me a bottle of water and said, 'Step by step, huh? Well, here's to steps.' As you can imagine, with a group like that it wasn't a huge leap before everyone was calling me Steps."

I neglect to tell Sergeant Anderson that I wasn't a member of Search and Rescue at the time and that my father brought me to the campground when he heard of the missing boys. He knew about my special ability, knew that I could help. Now, years later, there are three who know my secret: Dad, Jimmy, and FBI Director Robert Carlson.

"How long have you been with the FBI's Special Tracking Unit?" Anderson asks.

"I've been with the STU for five years now, since it was founded."

"I bet you help a lot of people," he says, and I can tell there's admiration in his words. But I don't answer. I average about two and a half call-outs a week, and these days they don't send me on the easy ones. There's always something unusual, unexplained, or sinister involved, which means the bodies pile up pretty quickly.

A slideshow of dead faces begins to play in my mind, unbidden and unwelcome. I force it to stop and replace it with the smiles of the living ... but they're outnumbered and soon we're back to dead faces and dead eyes and dead gaping mouths.

Help? I think. Not so much these days. I'm just the undertaker's front man.

Bowman Summit is just as I pictured it: a high, dirty ridge lined by a gentle down-sloping of trees to the east, generously mingled with the crude upthrusting of sedimentary rock, and to the west a crescent-shaped cliff dropping to the forest floor two hundred feet below. It's absolutely hideous!

"Now, that is a breathtaking view," Jimmy says, coming up beside me.


I love him like a brother, really; he's quick to laugh and always the first to find the better half of a bad situation, but sometimes ...

"Come on, Steps," Jimmy says, fake-punching me in the kidney, "even you have to admit that that's a gorgeous view. The way the mist hangs on the trees —"

I thrust the index finger of my right hand into the air, and Jimmy knows my meaning. We have one sacred rule: when in the woods, we don't talk about the woods.

He denies that I have hylophobia, the unreasonable fear of forests. I argue that, of all people, I should know whether I have an unreasonable fear of forests. But, apparently, because I don't go into a total meltdown on the trail, somehow that proves that I don't have it.

Psych majors.

"Hold it, Jimmy!" I bark, stopping dead in the path, my arms shooting up and out as if to block those coming up from behind.

The swath of trail ahead is little different from the rest of the summit, but etched forever upon it is the last paragraph of the last page of the last chapter of Ann Buerger's life. I see it as clearly as I see Jimmy standing next to me, though there is scant physical evidence.

An exceptional tracker would see some of it.

I see it all.

A shiver trembles through my body as a warm breeze comes in from the south.

* * *

You don't get lost on a three-mile trail that runs through your backyard, a trail you've walked or run hundreds of times. It just doesn't happen. I didn't know the details of the search when the call came in at 6:23 this morning, but by 7:30 we were wheels-up out of Hangar 7 at Bellingham International Airport and southbound to Portland on the STU's Gulfstream G100 corporate jet.

Hangar 7 is both a home for the jet and an innocuous secure facility from which the Special Tracking Unit operates. The open bay is large enough for the Gulfstream's almost fifty-five-foot wingspan, with room enough at the back for a two-story row of offices.

Downstairs is a comfortable break room on the left that includes a sixty-inch LCD TV on the wall, several chairs, and a couch suitable for sleeping, which I can personally vouch for. In the middle is a kitchen area with a full-sized fridge (ice and water dispenser included), a sink, a dishwasher, and plenty of counter space and cabinets. To the right is our conference room: a glass-enclosed, soundproof room with a long and no-doubt-expensive mahogany table running down the center. The table is surrounded by a retinue of overstuffed, overcomfortable chairs.

The room doesn't get much use.

The chairs are well greased, though, and Jimmy and I like to spin around in them as fast as we can to see who gets sick first. We're professionals.

The second story is less complicated: Jimmy's office to the right, mine to the left, and Diane Parker's right in the middle, poor woman.

Diane's our "intelligence analyst," which basically means she's a walking encyclopedia of both useful and useless information, a secretary, a records specialist, a computer technician, a travel agent, and she's the only one who can unclog the garbage disposal in the kitchen.

Diane's the puzzle master, the one who digs through databases and finds the missing pieces and lines them up to tell a story. We won't need her on this one. The story is easy to read.

"He hid over there," I say, pointing to the right of the path, "in the outcropping, behind those bushes. He waited; bastard! Waited until she was almost past and then came at her. Maybe she saw him in her peripheral vision, maybe she didn't. He knew she'd be wearing headphones, so she wouldn't hear him coming until it was too late." I stop in the trail. "Her footsteps end here."

"Wha — Did he take her?" Sergeant Anderson breathes.

Jimmy knows. His eyes are already scanning the edge of the summit.

"He pushed her," I say. "Hard enough that she flew at least seven or eight feet before coming down. By that time she was over the side." I walk over to Jimmy and point. "Her left hand landed first and she tried to grab that root, but she had too much momentum." I shake off a shiver and continue, now in a quiet voice. "She fought hard, grabbing, clawing, wedging her heels...." My voice drifts off as my eyes follow Ann's trail, until it disappears over the side and I gasp weakly, involuntarily, sadly. I didn't know her, but she deserved better. Not this.

The base of Bowman Summit is a hardscrabble of debris sloughed off by the mountain over generations, centuries, and millennia, mostly the result of slides and erosion. The castoff is eight to ten feet deep about the base and inclines sharply from the valley floor beginning some twenty feet out from the cliff wall.

A legion of trees populates the valley, fed by a network of small streams and creeks that no doubt empty into Henry Hagg Lake several miles away. The largest of the streams passes within a hundred feet of the summit base, providing clear, cool water to splash upon sweating faces. The forest is quiet today. The birds are about, but there's little singing and even the river's murmur seems muted.

She's waiting for us there, broken and quiet, sprawled upon the ground, empty eyes looking skyward, legs contorted unnaturally behind her: Ann Buerger. Two hours of hard trails, guided by GPS, and this is our trophy.


Excerpted from Collecting the Dead by Spencer Kope. Copyright © 2016 Spencer Kope. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Collecting the Dead 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I selected this book because it was a crime mystery with a paranormal twist. While it seemed to be "a little out there", Mr. Kopf made it work. Main characters, FBI agents, Jimmy and Magnus (Steps) are professional, quirky, interesting, warm and believable. Don't miss this series. Yes, I went looking for more by this author and found the 2nd book in the series and bought it. I feel a bit guilty because I haven't accomplished much besides reading the last day or so. I'll just read for a little while......
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Intense, quirky and funny in just the right places Nelson Demille like!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A gritty and grizzly paranormal page turner of a mystery. While not for the sensitive reader this book will have you glued to the pages. You will certainly enjoy this book if a dark and evil story is what you are craving.
booklover- More than 1 year ago
Agent Magnus Craig has been with the FBI Special Tracking Unit for 5 years. They call him the Human Bloodhound, although it’s not smells that he follows. Only three people know his secret … he has a gift (or curse depending on how you look at it). He sees steps, footsteps, like bunches of light that only he can see. He has to pretend whenever he’s on a case in order to preserve his secret. He is better known as Steps. But he’s getting weary of finding usually murdered bodies. He keeps two scrapbooks. One is black, pictures of those victims he couldn’t save. The other is white, pictures of the very few he has managed to find alive .. lost joggers, mountain climbers, children who have wandered away. Steps and his partner, FBI Special Agent Jimmy Donovan, are called to hunt down a serial killer they call The Sad Face Killer. Somewhere in the vicinity or on the body of the victim is a drawing of a sad face. This killer is smart, and he’s determined. All his victims are similar … young women with brown hair. They find what they think are his first 5 victims … and then his MO changes. Something has happened and Steps and Jimmy are hoping this may be the thread they’ve been looking for. It gets a little more suspenseful as they close in on their suspect. Much more suspenseful when they find his burial field. There are still women missing, one of whom is still alive. But will they reach her in time? I love the relationship between Steps and Jimmy. They are so different, yet they are closer than brothers. I love the humor that’s interwoven throughout this book, such as ……. *Jimmy and I like to spin around in the chairs as fast as we can to see who gets sick first. We’re professionals. *I went through training so I could carry a Taser, thinking it would be cool to have one if I ever needed it. No one told me that to complete the course I had to get shot by a Taser. When they asked me if I wanted firearms training I said, “Hell, no” *He’s like all the PE teachers I’ve ever had rolled up into one and sprinkled with Nazi dust Steps is a new kind of FBI Agent. Besides his gift, he feels so deeply about the victims. He loses sleep over it, has nightmares that don’t quit. Both he and Jimmy are quite likable. The ending is full of tension … and there’s just a little room left for another book to follow … if the author chooses. I’m hoping he will. I think this would be an exciting new series. Many thanks to the author / St. Martin’s Press – Minotaur Books / NetGalley who provided a digital copy in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Caught my attention right away, difficult to put down once I started.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved the characters,Steps and Jimmy in this novel. Steps’ unique gift is unbelievable and believable at the same time. Credit to the author for making me believe that Steps can see the aura of others. I loved the raw emotion of both characters and the banter between them that keeps them sane. So glad the story continues because I’m ready to read it next.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very good. Will read more from this author
JimJF More than 1 year ago
Thrilling and different fro the usual. Looking for more works from this author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a really good read and the main character Steps, made me want know more about him.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent read. Intricate but easy-to-follow plot, enjoyable characters, well-placed touches of humor. I'll read his next book!
PenPalAlmie More than 1 year ago
Awesome book! I was hoping that there were more books about the character Magnus Craig but looks like this is the first one. I could not put the book down. I read slowly so it wouldn't end so fast.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent book! Was hoping that there were more books about the character Magnus Craig but looks like this is the first one. Can't wait for the next one
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
For the last 5 years, the FBI's Special Tracking Unit has been tasked with tracking down - and hopefully bringing back alive - the abducted or lost. They've been pretty successful considering the unit consists of 2 men, Special Agent Jimmy Donovan and the "human bloodhound" Magnus "Steps" Craig who earned the nickname Steps after his first rescue at 14 when he found 2 young boys lost in the woods by searching "step by step." That dogged determination is not his only aid in the search as he has a special ability that helps him track both the abducted and their kidnappers/killers. It's called the "shine" and it's a kind of aura individual to each person. You can't use that sort of woowoo in court so they have to do it by the book. In this story, we watch the team, its female tech/administrative wizard, and a host of police and sheriff's personnel in many locations track a serial killer in hopes of rescuing his latest abducted before he kills her and goes on to the next on his list. There's also another older killer ever present on Steps' radar which promises that this is the first in a series. We get all the procedure of a great crime story, but we also get the kind of wear and tear on the psyche that this sort of job inflicts on the men and women who do it. Jimmy takes comfort from the normality of his home life with his wife and child, but Steps can't get away from those shining steps visible everywhere. An unusual and promising beginning to what is hopefully a new series.