The man on the dock was gagged and duct-taped to his chair. Several loops of chain wrapped around him and the chair, disappearing into a coil at his feet. A cinder block shackled to a length running out of the coil was sitting on the edge of the dock.
I sat on a bench at the edge of the dock, trying to keep warm and waiting for my quarry to wake up. It was the dead of winter and everything was quiet around the lake – all the summer homes locked up for the season. I had come looking for the man in the chair the day before, tracking him to this cabin on the shore of Carters Lake, about fifty miles north of Atlanta.
My mind drifted back to the day my client, Betty Austin, walked into my office.
“Are you Vince Diamond?” she said tentatively as she stuck her head in my office door. I don’t have a receptionist, or anywhere to put one if I did. I lease a one-room office in a small office park in Dunwoody, just north of the city.
I thought of some clever quip, since my name is on the door and I was the only one around, but the woman looked so distraught, I decided to play it straight. “Yes, I’m Vince Diamond, can I help you?”
“I hope so. I don’t know where else to go. I got your name from Mike Holst at the DeKalb County police department.”
Mike Holst worked missing persons for DCPD. He occasionally gave out my name to people when they wouldn’t or couldn’t help. The police won’t even file a report until someone was missing at least forty-eight hours. If they are an adult, and there was no sign of foul play, the police could do little. “Please, sit down and tell me what I can do. Let’s start with your name”
“I’m sorry. My name is Betty Austin, and my husband is missing. I have a picture,” she said and laid a photo of a good-looking man in his forties on my desk. “His name is Mark, Mark Austin.”
I took out my pad and started taking notes. “I assume the police couldn’t help?”
“No. They took a report and said they would file it and order a lookout. Detective Holst said that without some evidence of a crime, they couldn’t do any more. They say he may have just taken off on his own and he would come back when he was ready. But Mark wouldn’t do that. He’s never done that.”
“How long have you two been married?”
“Only two years. We met on vacation in the Caymans. We got married here a few weeks later. We’ve hardly been apart since then, except when Mark goes away on business.”
“And you know he’s not away on business now?”
“No. He would have told me. He doesn’t just leave without telling me.”
“Okay. Tell me what happened.”
“He called me from his office three days ago, Friday morning. We were talking about how we would spend the weekend. He interrupted to tell me he had another call coming in that he had to take. That was the last I heard from him.”
“Where does he work?”
“He works for himself as an independent investment counselor.”
“Could one of his clients called him away suddenly?”
“No. He still would have told me. He would have come home to pack. Besides, he hasn’t answered his cell phone. It’s been three days. I don’t know what to do.”
“Okay, I’ll take a look, but the police have a lot more manpower. If we can find a reason to, we’ll want to get them involved.”
I took some more information and filled out a standard contract. I arranged to meet her at her husband’s office in an hour. She left and I called Mike Holst.
“Mike, it’s Vince. I wanted to call and thank you for the referral.”
“And pump me for information.”
“And pump you for information. Did you guys look into this at all, or turn up anything interesting?”
“We checked out his office. Did a quick search of the airlines, hospitals, and other local police. We came up with nothing. His car’s gone. No reason to believe he didn’t just drive off somewhere. We’ve got a BOLO on the car, but there’s not much else we can do.”
The Be-On-the-Look-Out would most likely turn up something. If that went out to all metro police departments, it would cover eight counties and seven major interstates. Meanwhile, I drove over to Sandy Springs to meet Mrs. Austin.
She let me in with her key, disabled the alarm, and accompanied me inside. Mark Austin’s office was very similar to mine but with nicer furniture. It was one room with a waiting area in the corner. A massive oak desk took up the bulk of the floor space, which was almost clean except for a computer.
“See anything missing or out of place?” I asked her as I started the computer.
“No. Wait, yes, my picture. There was a picture of me in my wedding dress on his desk. It’s gone. He must have taken it don’t you think?”
I didn’t comment on that as I went to work searching his computer files. Fortunately, he didn’t have a password on his system. I guess he thought the lock on the door and security system were good enough. I was scrolling through the files created on February tenth, the day he disappeared.
“What time was your last phone call with him?”
“About two in the afternoon,” she answered, “Did you find something?”
“Not yet. How about have a seat in the waiting area and let me go through this. It won’t take long.” As she turned to head over to the corner, I put my flash drive into the USB port. I copied all the files from the last two days onto the card. I would have better luck working through them without the distraction. He saved the last file at one fifty-five. There was also a temporary file that he didn’t save stamped about fifteen minutes later. I took that, and then copied his calendar, email, and contact list for good measure.
I shut down the computer, and then spent a few minutes going through his desk drawers and file cabinets. Not much there – he obviously kept most records on his computer. I walked out with Mrs. Austin and waited while she locked up.
“Let me get started looking into this. I’ll call you as soon as I know anything. Either way, I’ll call you by the end of the week and give you a report.” I got a look that told me I would hear from her long before the end of the week. She went to her Volvo sedan, I got into my dusty Jeep Cherokee, and we parted ways.
I drove back to my office and booted up my computer. Inserting the memory key, I started looking at Mark Austin’s last files, beginning with the temporary file. Many computer programs create a temporary copy of a file while you are working on it. When you exit the program and save the file, the temporary file is deleted. If the computer crashes for some reason, the temp file is left behind so the file can be recovered. The fact that this file existed probably meant that Austin had turned his computer off in the middle of working on it, indicating he left in a hurry.
The file was a termination of services letter between Austin and someone named Al Bowden. There wasn’t a phone number, but there was an address off Fulton Industrial on the west side of town. I drove out there and found the address. It belonged to an old Tudor style house set in the trees, sheltered from the commercial area that surrounded it. I rang the bell and an attractive woman in her forties answered the door.
“May I help you?”
“Yes. My name is Vince Diamond and I’m looking for Al Bowden.”
“I’m Mrs. Bowden. May I ask what this is in reference to?”
“I’m a private investigator and I’m looking into the disappearance of Mark Austin. He apparently is a business associate of your husband. I’m just trying to get a line on what he was working on at the time of his disappearance.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that. I don’t keep up much with my husband’s business.”
“Can you tell me what sort of business he is in?”
“Real estate development and speculation. Some stock trading. Mostly he’s in the business of making money.”
“Yeah, aren’t we all? Can you tell me where he is or how to contact him?”
“He’s out of town. He has a cell phone, but he hasn’t been answering it. I wouldn’t give you that number anyway unless he said it was okay.”
“Is that unusual? Him not answering his cell?”
“Not really. When he’s tied up in a deal, he’ll turn it off. He also visits some fairly remote areas, looking at land development. And we have a cabin up at Carters Lake that doesn’t get service, but he rarely goes up there without me. Not in the middle of winter.”
“Well, thanks for your time.” I handed her my card. “If you hear from him, could you ask him to give me a call?”
That might have been another dead end, but whether she was worried or not, there were still two men missing at the same time. I don’t believe in coincidence.
I called Mike Holst again from my cell on the way back to my office. He wasn’t in, so I left my number. I was just pulling into my parking lot when he returned my call.
“I hope you’re calling me to report a crime. Otherwise, I’m busy.”
“Mike, thanks for calling me back. I was wondering what the chances were you could get me Mark Austin’s phone records for the day he went missing.”
“You’re breaking up, Joe. I thought you just asked me a very stupid question about something you know I can’t get without a court order.”
Oh well, I took a shot. I went into my office and got back on the computer. Scrolling back through the files I downloaded from Austin’s computer, I opened a bills folder and found a cell phone bill he had downloaded last month. Using that, I went online and got into his account.
I scrolled through the list of recent calls. There were none for any time after four o’clock on the day he disappeared. The last inbound call was at 2:17 from a 706 area code. The same number was his last outbound call at 4:02. 706 was a large area code covering most of North Georgia outside the Atlanta area. It was beginning to look like I might be going to Carters Lake. I decided to stop for the day and head home.
The next morning, there were four messages on my office phone. Three were from Betty Austin wanting to know if I had made any progress. The fourth was from Alicia Bowden. She sounded worried and asked that I please call her as soon as I got in. I called Mrs. Austin first and let her know that I was working the case, but hadn’t developed any leads yet. I assured her again that I would call her as soon as I had some news.
Next, I called Mrs. Bowden. She was frantic, but I finally got her calmed down enough to tell me what was going on. Her husband had called her the night before to tell her that he was in Chicago on business and would be gone for a few days. She said he sounded very nervous, almost scared, but he had finally assured her that everything was okay. He said he loved her and would be home Friday.
“So why do you think that there’s a problem?”
“He just didn’t sound right, but he wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. I couldn’t sleep all night worrying about it. This morning, I thought to check caller ID on the phone in the den – he was calling from our cabin. He’s not in Chicago. I’ve been calling the cabin all morning but nobody answers. I’m afraid something is terribly wrong, and I didn’t know who else to call.”
“What’s the number for the cabin?”
She gave me the same number as on Mark Austin’s cell phone bill. I got directions for the cabin and headed into the North Georgia Mountains.
Carters Lake is a 4,000-acre lake just south of the Chattahoochee National Forest. I got to the area around noon and went into the nearby town of Ellijay to find some lunch and a room for the night. I spent the afternoon finding the cabin and scouting the area. I wasn’t sure what I was going to find, but I didn’t think it was going to be good.
Late in the afternoon, I drove back to town and had some dinner. I went back to my room to change and grab my duffle bag. My bag contains an assortment of items I have found useful over the years, including binoculars, night-vision goggles, some rope, a Mag-Lite, a K-Bar knife, and my Browning 9mm pistol.
It was dusk as I pulled into the drive of the cabin three down from Bowden’s. From my scouting that afternoon, I knew that almost all of the cabins were empty. I went behind the cabin and down to the lakeshore following it around to the Bowden’s cabin. Behind the next cabin, I had to use my flashlight to circumvent a small construction site. Someone was building a dry-dock for a large boat out of cinder blocks. There was a block and tackle, and a large coil of chain resting on the path around the lake.
It was full dark as I approached the back of the cabin from the lake. I stopped as I heard a loud splash in the lake. I put on my NVGs and waited for my eyes to adjust to the pale green landscape. As I topped the rise where the cabin was located, I saw motion to my left. I slipped behind a low hedge and waited. A large man wearing a sweat suit was raking the leaves on the dirt path that led around the cabin to under the back deck. A large wheelbarrow rested there with a rolled up rug lying in it. I had no idea why someone would be doing yard work at this time of night in the winter, so I crouched down and waited.
After the man finished raking back up to the house, he disappeared around the front. After a few minutes, lights came on in the cabin, so I took off the goggles. I went under the deck and climbed up a supporting post, hoisting myself onto the deck where I lay flat and looked in the sliding door.
The man I had seen was at the kitchen sink scrubbing his hands with a brush and a bottle of bleach. The sweat suit had spatters of what looked like blood all over the front. He was not the man in the photo that Betty Austin had given me, so I assumed it was Al Bowden.
The man went to the laundry closet and stripped off the sweat suit, putting it and a large quantity of bleach into the washing machine and starting it. He then went to the bar; poured himself a tumbler of Wild Turkey, sat down in a chair in his shorts, and began to drink. I watched and waited while he continued to drink until he finally passed out. Then I went to work.