Collecting the Dead by Spencer Kope is a debut novel that introduces Magnus “Steps” Craig, a member of the FBI's Special Tracking Unit (Available June 28, 2016).
Magnus “Steps” Craig is part of the elite three-man Special Tracking Unit of the FBI. Called in on special cases where his skills are particularly needed, he works as a tracker. The media dubs him “The Human Bloodhound,” since Steps is renowned for his incredible ability to find and follow trails over any surface better than anyone else. But there's a secret to his success. Steps has a special ability—-a kind of synesthesia—-where he can see the 'essence' of a person, something he calls 'shine,' on everything they've touched. His ability is known to only a few people—-his father, the director of the FBI, and his partner, Special Agent Jimmy Donovan.
When the remains of a murdered woman are found, Steps recognizes the shine left by the murderer from another crime scene with a physically similar victim. And he uncovers the signature at both scenes—-the mark of a sad face. At the same time, another killer, one Steps has dubbed Leonardo and has been trying to track for over ten years, appears again, taunting Steps. But while Steps tries to find a clue that will lead him to Leonardo, the case of the Sad Face Killer heats up. The team uncovers eleven possible victims: missing women who fit the same pattern. Using his skill and the resources of the Bureau, it is a race against time to find the killer before it's too late.
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.”
“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.
“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.
I’m tired of collecting the dead.
Their faces look back at me from the slideshow in my mind, as if to ask: Why didn’t you save me? Even though they were dead long before I knew their names.
I feel Jimmy’s hand on my shoulder as I kneel near the body. “We save the ones we can,” he says quietly. Our words. After years of doing this they’re almost a catchphrase. Their original intent was to remind us that we have a job to do, to get us back on task even under the most grisly of circumstances.
We save the ones we can.
Then his hand is gone and it’s down to business. He begins to document the scene: photographs, GPS coordinates, measurements. It’s murder. Everything has to be in the report … or most everything. What won’t be in the official report are photographs of the places on her right forearm and right upper back where he shoved her. There’s no way of capturing that information, no camera or film that sees what I see. My head hurts as I look and my eyes feel tight and full, like grapes on a vine ready to split from too much rain.
The signs are there like a beacon, a light in the darkness, a neon billboard. So clear they might as well be words on a page. I can almost feel the force of the hit, Ann flying through the air, the emptiness of falling.
From the pocket of my Windbreaker I retrieve the leather case and the glasses within. Unfolding the earpieces, I slide them onto my face. The relief is instantaneous as the crushing tightness in my head lets go and washes away. I can almost feel it draining out the bottom of my feet as I wiggle my toes.
It’s a strange sensation. I’ve never gotten used to it.
My eyesight is twenty-twenty; the glasses have more to do with my sanity than my vision. They’re very special glasses with thin lead-crystal lenses. I had them custom-made in Seattle, which wasn’t cheap. I also have a pair with tinted lenses that pass for sunglasses, but I left them at home this trip.
The Canon PowerShot S95 is buried at the bottom of my backpack and I have to dig past an extra pair of socks, an Oregon map, some bottled water, a box of granola bars, a thermal blanket, and my toothbrush before I find it. Powering up the camera, I go through the ritual. This photo isn’t for the report. I click the button just once, and then check to make sure the image isn’t blurred or washed out by the sun. I stare at Ann for a moment.
She won’t leave me be.
Like the others, she’ll haunt my memories. In one month I deal with more murders than most cops see in a decade. It’s starting to take its toll.
“We gotta find the guy who did this,” Sergeant Anderson says, breaking my trance. I didn’t hear him come up, but he’s standing next to me, just staring up the side of the cliff, his eyes searching for … what? A clue? An explanation?
I watch him a moment. I’ve seen that look before: anger, anguish, a sense of helplessness. I’ve seen it on thousands of faces at hundreds of crime scenes. I’ve seen it in the mirror.
My hand finds his shoulder; I don’t know why. “We save the ones we can,” I hear myself say. The words don’t mean a thing to him. How could they? I just don’t know what else to say.
I’m not good with people, not really.
Dropping my hand, I say, “Don’t worry, I already know who did it.” Stowing the camera, I take one last look at Ann Buerger and walk away.
* * *
The door is dandelion-yellow, with frosted glass inserts and a brushed-nickel handle. The doorbell chimes for the second time—a cheerful five-note chorus that’s out of sync with the dreadful news about to be delivered.
Footsteps pad to the front of the house and a blur pauses motionless on the other side of the frosted glass. A dead bolt slides open, a door handle turns, and then there’s a face pressed through the narrow door opening: red eyes, a red nose, a downcast, twitchy mouth—all the bitter qualities of sorrow. Seeing Sergeant Anderson, Jimmy, and myself, Matt Buerger opens the door wide and takes a step forward.
As I pull my glasses down an inch and peer over the top, my eyes consume Matt in an instant, telling me all I need to know. In the world of man-tracking the term shine refers to a hard-to-see impression left in vegetation or on a difficult surface, usually caused by crushing or pressing, such as a foot on a leaf. The only way to bring the track out is illumination. You can use sunlight, but most trackers pack a flashlight so they can get close and control the angle of the light.
That’s not me.
I don’t use man-tracking methods because I don’t have to. Though we’re in the shadow of the porch and I have no flashlight, I see the shine: it’s on the door, on the floor, everywhere Matt Buerger walks and on everything he touches.
It’s the only track I need, and it’s abundant and everywhere; overpowering. It can’t be hidden or washed away. It can’t be disguised and it can’t be confused with another. It’s not the same shine used by man-trackers, though. This shine is exclusively mine, or at least I think it’s exclusive. Maybe God blessed someone else with this curse.
“Did you find anything?” Buerger chokes.
Anderson nods. “We found Ann,” he says softly, but before he can continue, I blurt, “She’s hurt, but alive and conscious.”
Out of the corner of my eye I see Jimmy quickly grab Anderson’s elbow from behind. His grip is firm and Anderson catches on quickly; smart man. Normally I’d warn the locals if I’m going to try something like this, but I tend to be spontaneous, and this one just crept up on me as we ascended to the porch. I can imagine the sergeant’s shock, however, and I can tell he’s none too pleased. As far as he knows, Matt Buerger is the grieving husband, and what I just did is unforgivable.
“They’re taking her to Adventist Medical Center in Portland,” I continue, not wanting to give Anderson time to think things through. “She had some interesting things to tell us before she left, though.” I fall silent and let the statement hang in the air. To the innocent, such words are intriguing and beg questions. To the guilty, they’re accusatory, condemning.
Buerger’s face goes blank, and then turns hard as stone.
“What’d she say?”
Without a word, Jimmy reaches around to the small of his back, snaps the button on the leather case secured to his belt, and produces a pair of nickel-plated handcuffs, which he dangles by one end.
“No.” Buerger’s mouth hardens. On his face and in his eyes the transformation is instantaneous and startling, like pudding turning to granite as you watch. He tries to slam the door, but Jimmy’s too quick and launches into the dandelion-yellow field. There’s a loud crack as the door slams open. Buerger lands on his back—hard. He lets out an involuntary ummph and flies across the polished hardwood floor, gasping, cursing, clawing against the momentum.
Jimmy’s on him.
Watching my partner at work is like watching a tie-down roper at a rodeo—it’s almost a thing of beauty—only instead of binding the legs of a calf together with a pigging string in three seconds flat, he hooks the suspect up with a pair of metal bracelets. If they ever come up with a police rodeo for restraining and cuffing, my money’s on him.
No sooner does Buerger get his breath back than he spits it out again in a tirade of prolific profanity, capped off by, “Stupid bitch! She can’t even die properly.”
Close, but not quite a confession.
“I should’ve drowned her in the river instead of pushing her.”
Copyright © 2016 Spencer Kope.
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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.