Archive for August, 2011
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The man on the dock was gagged and duct-taped to the chair. In addition, several loops of chain wrapped around him and the chair, disappearing into a coil at his feet. A cinder block sitting on the edge of the dock was shackled to a length running out of the coil.
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. I had come looking for the man the day before, tracking him to this cabin on the shore of Carters Lake, 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 door.
“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 police department.”
Mike worked missing persons. He occasionally gave out my name to people when they couldn’t help. The police wouldn’t file a report until someone was missing at least forty-eight hours. If they were an adult with 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. His name is Mark, Mark Austin.”
I took out my pad and started taking notes. “I assume the police couldn’t help?”
“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 anything. They said he may have just taken off on his own and would come back when he was ready. Mark wouldn’t do that. He’s never done that.”
“How long have you been married?”
“Two years. We’ve hardly been apart since then, except when Mark goes away on business.”
“And you know he’s not away on business now?”
“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 he had to take. That was the last time I heard from him.”
“Where does he work?”
“He works for himself as an investment counselor.”
“Could one of his clients called him away suddenly?”
“He still would have told me and come home to pack. Besides, he hasn’t answered his cell phone. It’s been three days. I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll take a look, but I can’t promise anything.”
I took some more information, filled out a contract, and 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 and home, and came up with nothing. His car’s gone. No reason to believe he didn’t just drive off. We’ve got a lookout on the car, but there’s not much else we can do.”
I drove over to meet Mrs. Austin. She let me in with her key, disabled the alarm, and accompanied me inside. It was a small one-room office with a waiting area in the corner. A massive oak desk was almost clean except for a computer.
“See anything missing or out of place?” I asked her as I started the computer.
“No. But I don’t come here very often.”
I went to work searching his computer files. He didn’t have a password on his system. I guess he thought the lock and security system were enough I was scrolling through the files created on 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. This won’t take long.” I put my flash memory key into the USB port and copied all the files from the last two days. I would have better luck working through them without the distraction. He saved the last file at two-ten.
I shut down the computer, and then spent a few minutes going through his drawers and files. Not much there – he kept most records on his hard drive. 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.”
I drove back to my office and started my computer. Inserting the memory key, I looked at Mark Austin’s files, beginning with the last one. It was a termination letter between Austin and someone named Al Bowden. There wasn’t a phone number, but there was an address on the west side of town. I drove out there and found the place. It belonged to a house set in the trees, sheltered from the commercial area that surrounded it. I rang the bell and a very attractive woman in her forties was 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 an 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. I don’t keep up with my husband’s business.”
“Can you tell me what sort of business he is in?”
“Real estate speculation. Some stock trading.”
“Can you tell me where he is or how to contact him?”
“He’s out of town. He has a cell phone, but he’s not answering it.”
“Is that unusual? Him not answering his cell?”
“Not really. When he’s tied up in a deal, he’ll turn it off and he visits some remote areas. 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 there were still two men missing at the same time. I don’t believe in coincidence.
I went back to my office and got back on the computer. Scrolling through the files I downloaded from Austin’s computer, I found a cell-phone bill he had downloaded last month. Using that, I went online and got his account.
I scrolled through the list of calls. There was none after the day he disappeared. The last inbound call was at 2:17. The same number was his last outbound call at 4:02. I decided to stop for the day and head home.
The next morning, I received a frantic call from Alicia Bowden. She sounded worried – 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, but he finally assured her that everything was okay. He said he loved her and would be home Friday.
“So why do you think there’s a problem?”
“He didn’t sound right, but wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. I couldn’t sleep all night worrying about it. This morning, I checked caller ID – he was calling from our cabin. He’s not in Chicago. I’ve been calling all morning but nobody answers. I’m afraid something is wrong, and I didn’t know who to call.”
“What’s the number for the cabin?”
She gave me the same number as on Austin’s cell-phone bill. I got directions for the cabin and hung up. I worked in my office until after lunch, and then headed for the mountains. I got to there late in the afternoon and scouted the area.
It was dusk as I pulled into the drive of a cabin close to Bowden’s. From my scouting that afternoon, I knew that most of the cabins were empty. I went down to the lakeshore following it around to the Bowden’s. Behind the next cabin, I had to use my flashlight to circumvent a small construction site. Someone was building a dry-dock. There was a hoist, cinder blocks, and a large coil of chain resting on the path next to the lake.
It was dark as I approached the back of the cabin from the lake. I stopped as I heard a loud splash and turned off my light, waiting for my eyes to adjust. I saw motion on the side of the cabin. I slipped behind a hedge and waited. A man wearing a sweat suit was raking the path that led around to under the deck. A wheelbarrow rested there with a rolled up rug in it. I had no idea why someone would be doing yard work at this time of night in the winter.
After the man raked up to the house, he disappeared around the front, and then lights came on in the cabin. I went under the deck and hoisted myself onto the deck where I lay flat and looked in the sliding door.
The man was at the sink scrubbing his hands with a brush. The sweat suit had spatters of what looked like blood on the front. He wasn’t the man in the photo Betty Austin had given me, so it wasn’t husband number one. I assumed it was Al Bowden, but I wasn’t sure.
The man went to the laundry and stripped off the sweat suit, putting it and a lot of bleach into the machine. He then went to the bar; poured himself a tumbler of bourbon, sat in a chair in his shorts, and began to drink. I watched and waited until he finally passed out. Then I went to work.
The man in the chair came awake. When he became aware of his situation, he began to hyperventilate with fear.
“Calm down – you’ll breathe easier. You only have to be afraid if you don’t tell me what I need to know, or lie to me. Then, you can fear sinking to the bottom of the lake and staying there until that chair rots off your bones.”
The man looked wildly around him, trying to scream through the duct-tape. I walked over and slapped him once, hard. “When you calm down, I’ll remove the tape so we can talk.”
His breathing slowed and got deeper as he tried to compose himself. When I thought he was ready, I ripped off the tape. “Who the hell…”
I slapped him again, and he shut up. “Here’s how it’s going to work. I’m going to ask you questions, and you’re going to answer them. If I can’t get what I need from you, I don’t need you, and I kick that block into the water. There’s no one around to hear you scream.”
After that, he became more cooperative.
“Who are you and why were you in that cabin?”
“It’s my cabin. My name’s Al Bowden. I’m here on vacation. My wife will be back any minute.”
I kicked the block. It fell over and hung a few inches off the edge. Bowden’s eyes locked on it in fear.
“That’s one. The next lie and it goes in the water. I’ll find out what I need with or without you. What are you doing here and where is Mark Austin.?”
I could see his mouth form the word ‘who’ but his eyes cut back to the block.
“Look, I didn’t mean to hurt him. We were just talking, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“Talking about what?”
“I’m about to close on some land next to I-75. They’re going to cut a new exit there and the land will be worth ten times what it is now. He’s doing the financial planning for the family that owns it and was going to tell them. He was dropping me as a client – said it was a conflict of interest. I couldn’t let that deal slip away.”
“So how did you get him here?”
“Called him on his cell. He said he was just typing up a letter to me. Then he was going to see his client. I talked him into coming by here first so we could work out a compromise where everybody makes out. It wasn’t far out of his way.”
“So you got him here, then what?”
“I tried to talk some sense into him. This deal was worth a hundred thousand huge profit. Told him I’d split it with him, but once the owners knew about it, they wouldn’t need us. We had to move before the DOT started talking with landowners.”
“But he wouldn’t listen.”
“Who the hell does he think he is? He just shook his head and turned away. I grabbed an old conch shell of the table and whacked him in the back of the head. I didn’t mean to hurt him – I just wanted him to stop and listen.”
“Where is he now?”
“In the crawlspace under a tarp. I threw the shell into the lake last night and cleaned up the cabin. I was trying to figure out what to do with the body. I don’t know what happened after that.
“After that, you passed out. I loaded you into the wheelbarrow that held your bloody rug and hauled you down here. I borrowed some equipment from next door and waited until morning.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“Al, you’ve been very cooperative. I’m just going to leave you now with one thought.”
With that, I stood and walked over and kicked the block into the water and walked away as it started dragging the chain into the lake.
His screams grew hysterical as I walked up the path to the cabin. He rocked over and knocked his chair over, hoping to stop the chain’s progress. The screams drowned out the sound of the chain hitting the water, but I turned and watched as the last of the links slid off the pier into the lake. He screamed on for a few more minutes before he realized the splashing had stopped and he was still on the dock. He finally looked around and saw that the chain attached to his chair ended where the coil had rested earlier.
Someone would find him eventually. I had some very unsettling phone calls to make.
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What kind of car does your character drive?
In making the movie 48 Hours, there was very little script or rehearsal. The movie was mostly shot in sequence and the story grew and changed as it progressed. Early in the filming, there was a scene where Nick Nolte walked out of his girlfriend’s house to get into his car. The director, Walter Hill, had parked an old beat-up Cadillac convertible in the street with one wheel up on the curb. Seeing that car and how it was parked told Nolte more about his character than any direction would have.
The same is true of the characters in the stories we write. We are often instructed to show and not tell. While there are many visual clues we could give our readers as to the ‘character’ of our characters, few can say as much about their personality than the car they drive. Is it old or new? Well kept or a beater? Is it an expensive status symbol or the cheapest thing with wheels?
Travis Mcgee had two modes of transportation – a houseboat named the ‘Busted Flush’ that he won in a poker game, and a painted-purple Rolls-Royce that has been converted to a pickup truck called ‘Miss Agnes.’ If that were all you knew about this character, you would know a lot.
Kinsey Millhone drives a battered VW that befits her style as a near pauper. This is the antithesis of most male private detectives who drive flashy sports cars, although we are never sure what, if any, car is driven by Spenser, Boston’s favorite son. This begs the question, “What difference does it make what car a character drives?” It may not. There are many other ways to let your readers see your characters, but few can so much with so little.
Next time you are in or by a parking lot, look at the cars parked there. Many, if not most, are non-descript and forgettable. Those aren’t the ones I mean. I’m talking about the ones that grab your attention and make you wonder about who is driving them. The truck that is set so high on large tires you need a ladder to get in. The expensive sports car parked out on the edge of the lot. The older cars – both the pristine antiques that show meticulous care, and the old rust buckets that are barely hanging together. Each of these gives you some insight into the driver, and would give your readers insight into your character.
Consider these sentences, which all describe the same scene.
Dave Johnson got into his car.
Dave Johnson climbed up into his rig, the oversized tires spattered with a coating of mud.
Dave Johnson clicked the remote unlocking and starting his silver Maybach.
Dave Johnson pried open the door of his 1963 Dodge, hoping the rusty hinges would hold one more time.
The same guy getting into a car. The first one tells us nothing, while the next three tells us a great deal about who this character is in a single sentence.
This is especially useful in first person narratives. I am frequently at a loss for getting readers to ‘see’ a character that is the first person narrator. You can’t say, “I’m Dave Johnson, and I’m rich.” Well, you can, but it’s a bit clumsy. Better to have the character describe something about himself. The type and condition of his or her car can tell the reader a great deal.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get on my motorcycle and ride into the sunset.