Clients call her Angel of the Outlaws. Ruby Dark is a brash, tough, fifty-year-old red-haired Lamborghini-driving woman who runs a successful bail bond business in Denver. BROKEN BONDS is the "genesis" short story of how Ruby came to run her own bail bond business following the murder of her husband, and how she met the future man in her life, Detective Morgan Reed.
Detective Morgan Reed looked at the body sprawled face down in the gloomy parking lot, fresh blood puddled near the victim’s head. Male. Like Reed, well over six feet. But older, with gray hair. And wealthier. Definitely wealthier. Dressed in a gray suit that would have cost the detective a month’s salary.
“What do we have so far?” he asked the three uniformed patrolmen standing between the victim and the lone car in the lot, a brand-new 1986 Lincoln Mark VII.
“Three shots,” said the shortest of the officers, stepping forward. He nodded toward the tallest of the uniforms. “We heard three shots. We was right over at the plaza, takin’ a smoke. Ran right over.” He glanced at the body. “At least one shot in the back and one to the back of the head. Not sure about the third one. Close range, that’s for sure.”
“Let’s leave the forensics to the experts, officer,” snapped Reed.
“Yes, sir, I just—”
“None so far.”
Reed leaned over for a closer examination and spotted something on the victim’s neck.
“Gimmie a flashlight,” he commanded, reaching out his hand. The tallest officer pulled a flashlight from his gun belt. Reed shined the light on the victim’s neck. Peeking above the shirt collar was a tattoo of a heart-shaped-ruby.
He swept the light over the rest of the body. The man lay with his arms outstretched toward the rear of the Lincoln, as if reaching for something in death. An expensive-looking silver bracelet on his exposed right wrist, an expensive watch on his left. Odds were they’d find the victim’s wallet on him, flush with cash.
Not likely a robbery. An execution.
The detective returned the flashlight and scanned the parking lot. A touch of summer light lingered behind the mountains but little fell on the lot. No pole lights and little light spilling from the back of the buildings that edged the lot. The shooting was so close to police headquarters there wasn’t the usual contingent of patrol cars and emergency vehicles throwing off lights. Not often he could walk to a crime scene.
There would have been almost no place for the shooter to hide, except for the Dumpster ten feet away serving the buildings. That would have done the trick. The killer hid there and slipped up behind the victim as he headed for his car.
“Shell casings?” Reed asked.
“No, sir,” said the shorter one. “Killer must have scooped them up.”
“Not if he used a revolver,” he pointed out.
The uniform fell silent.
Shell casings or not, the shooting had been brazen, gunning down a man a mere home run from a building full of cops.
The detective nodded toward the middle cop, the one neither short nor tall. “Get a fire truck over here, get some light on this. Get the crime scene unit, too.”
The patrolman scurried away.
“Any idea who our vic is?” he asked the remaining two.
“Yeah. Al Dark,” said the short guy.
“The bail bondsman?”
Made sense. The body lay behind Al Dark’s bail bond office on West 13th Avenue, half a block up the street from Bail Bonds Row on Delaware and across the street from headquarters and the city jail. Get Out Quick Bail Bonds, advertised street side by a large neon sign, occupied the second floor of a 1920s converted Victorian home,. The ground floor was occupied by the Snip-Snip Spay-Neuter Clinic. He’d walked past the clinic on his way over from headquarters. Place gave him the willies every time he saw it.
He looked at the short cop, who he didn’t recognize, and had decided he didn’t like. “You seem certain it’s Al Dark. You’ve met him?”
“Not in person, no sir. Only by reputation.”
“What kind of reputation?”
“You know, sleazy. Like all bondsmen. Dark was the big cheese.”
Reed had never met Dark, either, but he was aware of his reputation. He rattled around in his brain for whether he’d ever heard that Al Dark carried a ruby neck tattoo, but came up with nothing
“I’m still not clear, officer, why you’re so certain it’s him,” he pressed. “You guys didn’t search his body for a wallet, did you?”
“No, no, we know to wait for the coroner before touching a body,” snapped the short one. He acted insulted by the question.
“His wife identified him.” The cop pointed toward the back of the bail bond office. Another uniform stood at the foot of a flight of metal stairs that climbed from the parking level to the second floor. Reed had noticed him when he arrived, but not the woman sitting halfway up the stairs deep in shadow.
“She was kneeling by her husband when we arrived,” offered the short cop. “Said she heard the shots.”
Reed glared at the two cops. “Jesus, you left her there staring at her dead husband? You could have moved her into their office.”
The two officers shifted uncomfortably on their feet.
Reed sighed. He was tired. He’d worked all day and at the last minute had to fill in for one of the night detectives. “I’ll speak to her. You two canvas the area. See if you can scrounge up anyone willing to admit they heard gunshots, saw our killer fleeing, saw a car speed away, anything. Check these buildings, too. See if anyone is working late who might have noticed something. Coroner’s office been called?”
“Yes, sir,” said the tall cop. “Could be another thirty minutes.”
“Then get an emergency vehicle here and have ’em throw a clean sheet over the body. That’s the least you could do for his wife.”
The detective turned toward the stairs.
“Sir,” came the voice of the short cop.
“What now, officer?
“She ain’t been very cooperative.”
“Bondsmen never are,” he said.
“Thanks for the insights. Now get going on the canvas.”
Reed walked to the stairs and ordered the remaining cop to guard the body. He climbed the stairs until he reached the woman. Her face was buried in her hands and her body trembled, but no sobbing. Her face came up at the sound of his steps.
“You’re Mrs. Dark?” he said.
“I’m Detective Reed. Homicide. What’s your first name?”
That explained the victim’s tattoo.
“Just to confirm what the officers told me, that’s your husband, is that correct? Al Dark?”
A deep, shaky sigh. “Yes.”
“Al is short for . . . ?”
“My condolences, Mrs. Dark.”
Another long pause. “I recognize your name, detective,” she said in a voice like gravel sliding down a tin chute. A surprisingly strong and steady voice. “Something of a young legend in the police department.”
Yeah, a legend. The Slayton murder case, the Levy bombing conspiracy, and other headline makers. Legends might be good for newspapers but they weren’t for working in a police department. He’d seen that in the faces of the three uniforms.
He motioned toward the top of the stairs. “Let’s go up to the office, Mrs. Dark. It’ll be more comfortable.”
§ § § § §
Ruby Dark stopped in the middle of the office, as if uncertain where to go or what to do next, her eyes wide and wild with the madness of the evening.
Now in better light, Reed put her in her mid-forties, a few years older than he was, but at least fifteen years younger than her husband. Like Al Dark, she was tall, a striking woman, with mounds of thick red hair that fell to her shoulders. She wore high heels, a tight knee-length skirt, and a matching long jacket with padded shoulders, the same shade of gray as her dead husband’s suit, and probably as expensive. Something Linda Evans would wear on Dynasty, only more mannish. Warmed up with a rust-colored scarf. Her jewelry—chunky gold earrings and a gold choker—definitely was not costume.
She and her husband looked dressed as if headed out for an evening on the town. If they dressed like that for work, he wondered what their lowlife clients thought as they drained their puny life savings and put up their car or their parents’ home for collateral in order to post bond.
He motioned the woman to an expensive-looking black leather couch nudged against a wall.
“Can I get you water or something else to drink?” Reed asked as he poked his head into a small bathroom and a dark, closet-sized storage room with a mini-fridge, two four-drawer file cabinets, coffee maker, and a microwave oven with an open box of chocolate chip cookies on top. “Coffee, maybe?”
Reed took in the rest of the office. He didn’t frequent bail bond offices, but most were small and ratty looking. Not this one.
Interior walls of the old house had been knocked out to create a spacious room, with fashionable hardwood floors and exposed bricks walls. A black leather executive chair and two vinyl-and-steel guest chairs sandwiched a large L-shaped cherry desk. Or what he could see of the desk. Paperwork smothered its surface, leaving barely enough room for a phone, an open can of Pepsi, and a lead-crystal ashtray with six half-smoked cigarettes. A smaller desk, neat with only a Selectric typewriter and a phone, sat in a corner. A place to meet executives, not criminals.
The décor—the word seemed pretentious—was masculine: a shelf fashioned from the model of a 1969 Dodge Charger bumper, metal auto parts signs on the walls, a framed license from the Colorado Division of Insurance to play bondsman, a Chevy Chevelle SS wall clock, a hot rod wall calendar, and a credenza topped with a dozen models of vintage cars and pickups. A basketball covered in autographs and a small ivory-framed picture of Ruby Dark squeezed in among the model cars. Behind the big desk, a stamped metal sign on the wall said Bail Boss, a pair of handcuffs dangling below it.
A blunt reminder for clients toying with skipping after their release?
The other masculine element was the clutter, as if the place were a dorm room for male college students. The floor presented an obstacle course of plastic bins stuffed with files and paperwork. One bin took up residence in one of the guest chairs.
The only thing that seemed out of place was the sounds of hard jazz coming from a turntable sitting atop a wooden stand by the small desk.
Reed pointed to a narrow flight of stairs leading to the next floor. “Where does that go?”
He hit a light switch on the way up and climbed high enough to peer in. A peaked-ceiling room an adult couldn’t stand in. Empty except for more plastic bins. Get Out Quick Bail Bonds did a lot of business.
He returned to the office and pulled up the empty guest chair to face Ruby Dark. For the first time, he got a good look at her face. Attractive, with strong bone features and surprisingly smooth skin. She must not have lived in Denver long, or anywhere in the mountain west, for that matter. The unfiltered sun out here brutalized skin. From the Midwest, down South, or back East, perhaps, though her voice betrayed no accent that might provide a clue.
But her most striking feature was the intensity of her eyes. Jade green, damp with grief. Eyes so intense they almost compelled him look away.
He pulled a notebook and pen from inside his sport coat and leaned forward with his elbows on his thighs. “Tell me what happened, Mrs. Dark.”
She took a deep breath that appeared to calm her shaking body. She wiped her eyes with red-polished fingertips. “Al received a phone call. After he hung up, he said he had to go out.”
“When was this?”
“Minutes before he was killed. Around eight-thirty.”
“A call from who?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Did he say what the call was about?”
“Did you overhear anything that might suggest what it was about?”
“Did he say where he was going?”
“Did you find that unusual?”
“No,” she said. At that moment, a curtain seemed to fall over her eyes, shuttering from view whatever lay behind them. “When it came to the business, my husband didn’t confide much.”
He detected hurt in her tone. He wondered what else her husband didn’t confide.
“Perhaps it was a bond,” he offered. “Was he headed for the jail?”
“If that had been the case, he would have gone out the front and walked over.”
“Did he appear upset by the call?”
“Not that I could tell. But he seemed in a hurry to leave.”
“Is that his Lincoln down there?”
“Any other cars in the lot tonight?”
“Two from the spay-neuter clinic, but they left an hour ago.”
“So he went down the back stairs and headed for his car?”
“Yes. He wasn’t gone twenty seconds before I heard the shots.”
He scribbled notes. “How many?”
“You were certain they were gunshots? Not backfires?”
“They were very close and I recognize the sound of gunshots.”
He let his face show the obvious question.
“My husband taught me how to use a handgun.”
“Was he carrying a gun when he left?”
“Yes. A Ruger P eighty-nine. Holstered under his jacket. He always carried except when he went to the jail.” A tiny sad chuckle escaped her. “We have a bounty hunter who never carries one. Never been shot.”
“Why did your husband always carry?”
“We’re in a rough business.”
He’d seen no gun near the body. If Al Dark had been shot from behind, he never had a chance to draw.
“Do you carry a gun, Mrs. Dark?”
“I own one. I rarely carry it.”
He straightened. “Where do you keep it? Here?”
“In a desk drawer.” She started to rise but he motioned for her to stay.
“Where?” he asked.
“Top right-hand side of the large desk. For when I’m here alone.”
He walked behind the desk and pulled open the drawer. Atop a stack of papers lay a 9mm Glock with a satin chrome finish, a box of shells next to it.
“Loaded?” he asked.
“Yes. And one in the chamber.”
He snapped on a pair of disposable gloves. He removed the semi-automatic. Chambered and loaded. He sniffed it. No lingering firecracker smell. The gun hadn’t killed Al Dark.
“What, you think I shot my husband?” she said, her rough voice rising. “Then raced back upstairs, reloaded the gun, and raced back down to the parking lot before the cops arrived?”
“We always check weapons, ma’am. Procedure.” He ejected the chambered round and pulled out the clip. He retrieved an evidence bag from a sports coat pocket and slipped in the gun and the bullets. “We’ll return it as soon as possible.”
She frowned. “It’s my protection.”
“Are you concerned the killer might return?”
“Like I said, it’s a rough trade.”
“Procedure,” he insisted. He put the evidence bag back into his coat pocket. “We’ll be obtaining a search warrant for this office, so you won’t be able to remain here. Where do you live?”
He knew bail bondsmen who lived above their offices, but with all the clutter in this place, even the mice didn’t have habitable space.
“We have a home on Thirteenth Avenue in Cheesman Park.”
The rumble of heavy vehicles drew him out of his chair to a window overlooking the parking lot. A fire truck pulled up, its lights throwing daggers of red into the office. Headlights snared the body of Allan Dark. An ambulance pulled in beside the truck.
Reed looked back at Ruby Dark. “We’ll have to search the car, possibly impound it. Did you come with your husband?”
“As soon as we’re done, then, I’ll have an officer drive you home. Unless you have family you would prefer to stay with?”
“Friends or relatives we should contact? People who could be with you?”
She shook her head. The curtains in her eyes parted for a flicker of a moment and a sadness came into them. The realization she was abruptly alone in the world? He knew the pain of being alone. His wife had died two years ago from lupus. At least he had two daughters living with him.
“Does your husband have family we should contact?” he asked. “Siblings, parents, children from a prior marriage, close cousins?”
“None he had anything to do with.”
That gave him pause. “So there is family?”
“I have no idea where they live or how to reach them. He rarely spoke of them.”
Another line for inquiry.
The detective glanced again out the window. Two EMTs floated a sheet over Al Dark. He snapped the blinds closed and returned to the chair with his notebook. “I take it you work with your husband? That’s why you were here tonight?”
“Yes. I handled the paperwork. I also appraised any jewelry we took in for collateral.”
“Did you write bonds?”
“A few. Small ones. Al was the rainmaker. He wrote all the big stuff.”
Her husband must have written a lot of big stuff to afford the car and the expensive clothes and a home in Cheesman Park. On his salary, he couldn’t afford a garage in that neighborhood.
“Do you have employees?”
“Were one of you always here on duty?” Most bond operations ran twenty-four hours a day.
“No. We used to hire people to work nights but found them unreliable. We have an answering service that forwards calls when we’re home. But we’re often here late.”
“The officers said they found you by your husband’s body when they arrived.”
“Yes. When I heard the shots I ran downstairs.”
“Did you see anyone? Anyone running away?”
“That couldn’t have been more than what, ten, fifteen seconds from the time of the shots?”
“I—I hesitated at the top of the stairs trying to see what was going on. I wasn’t going to run out into gunfire. I didn’t see Al right away. When I did, that’s when I went down.”
“But you saw no one?”
She gloomily shook her head.
“Did you hear a vehicle pull away?”
A silent shake of her head.
The killer had done his job quickly and efficiently. The mark of a pro. “Did you touch his body?”
She stared at her clenched hands in her lap. Her body shuddered.
“Take your time, Mrs. Dark.”
She slowly looked up and drew in a deep breath. “I checked his pulse. I knew he was dead but I checked anyway. The police arrived before I even had time to call nine-one-one.”
He tried to size her up as she spoke. She was distraught. Shaken. The clenched hands in her lap quivered. But her voice remained strong. She hadn’t collapsed in tears as many wives would have, seeing her husband like that. He sensed a toughness to her. An inner resiliency. Being married to a big-shot bail bondsman was not for the faint of heart.
“Any idea who might have wanted to kill your husband?”
Reed cocked his head. “You mentioned you work in a rough trade. Some of your colleagues have a less than stellar reputation. We arrested one guy last year who’d put out a contract on a rival. You’re sure you have no idea as to suspects? Enemies? Rival bondsmen your husband didn’t get along with?”
“Any clients who had a grudge against him? We get a lot of complaints from suspects and their families that sleazy bondsmen take unfair advantage of them. Exploit them.”
The word “sleazy” hardened her eyes. “My husband didn’t take advantage of clients.”
He closed his notebook. Just as her husband didn’t confide in her, he sensed she wasn’t fully confiding in him. While she was shaken and distraught, she didn’t appear shocked or in denial. He’d been around plenty of homicide survivors. Most are stunned when a loved one is murdered. They can’t comprehend why someone would do such a thing. They retreat into a numbness and disbelief. Why was their loved one a target?
Ruby Dark had not asked why.
§ § § § §
“You remind your client, hon, that I own him,” said Ruby Dark from behind her dead husband’s large desk. She frowned as she listened to the caller. Then, “My husband’s death changes nothing, Mr. Gilchrist. Your client is on the hook to this company. If he doesn’t show up in court and apologize to the judge, I’ll hunt him down and personally throw his ass back in jail.”
Reed listened as he stood by the credenza rotating the autographed basketball in his basketball-size hands. The Denver Nuggets—Fat Lever, the incomparable Alex English, T.R. Dunn, Bill Hanzlik, pretty much the whole team. He’d barely begun interviewing Ruby when the call interrupted them.
He was impressed by her yeoman’s work reorganizing the office since her husband was gunned down three days before. The obstacle course of plastic bins was gone. Not a bin in sight except for a few in the storage room. The rest she must have stashed in the attic. Paperwork no longer smothered the desk. The crystal ashtray was gone. Apparently, smoking would no longer be allowed while clients put their meager wealth on the line. Jazz played on the turntable. Must be her music, not her husband’s.
Ruby hung up. “Pardon the interruption, detective. My husband’s clients seem to think they can take advantage of me because of his death.”
He let out a chuckle. “Doesn’t sound as if they’re going to succeed.”
“I like to remind people that Get Out Quick Bail Bonds doesn’t mean Get Out Free Bonds.”
“You sound as if you’re trying to make a go of it.”
“I figured you’d sell. It’s a rough profession for a woman. Alone.”
Determination set into her face. “Bail bondswomen go back to Gussie Smith in this state, hon. Besides, this is not a business you can readily sell. Not like a paint store or a restaurant. It’s a very personal business. And I can’t afford to let it go. I need the income.”
He’d seen her behavior before among those left behind in the wake of a violent death of a loved one. Survivors running on fumes, struggling to keep life as close to normal as possible and keep the nightmares at bay. But the nightmares inevitably catch up. They always catch up.
He was puzzled, however, by her “need for income” considering their ostensible signs of wealth and his confirmation that Al Dark was indeed the big cheese among Denver bondsmen. He’d interviewed several bondsmen and two officers at the Bond Desk at city jail. All conveyed the same story. Al Dark wrote more of the gravy bonds than anyone else in the city. The well-heeled criminals came to him. Get Out Quick Bail Bonds was a lucrative business. And Ruby Dark looked as well-dressed as she was the night he’d met her.
He set the basketball on its stand. “Your husband was a Nuggets fan, I see.”
“No, that was a gift from Al. He knew several players on the team, though he preferred baseball.”
“That’s my sport.”
Ruby shook her head in sympathy. “Sorry to hear that. Baseball is the only sport that competes with curling and soccer as the most boring.” She tapped a pencil on the desk. “So what have you turned up, detective? Besides that you love a boring sport. Any suspects?”
They’d searched his office and car in the hours following his murder, but had turned up no useful clues. The only interesting evidence was that they’d determined the mysterious phone call that had sent the bondsman scurrying out into the night and his death had come from a pay phone. A phone down the block.
While the list of suspects remained sketchy at this point, his investigation had turned up some disturbing lines of inquiry.
He settled into one of the chairs across the desk from her. “I can’t go into details at this point, Mrs. Dark. Not in an ongoing investigation.”
“Yeah, yeah, typical cop speak for ‘we ain’t got a clue’.”
“That’s not true, Mrs. Dark. We have—”
“Call me Ruby. Mrs. Dark sounds like I’m an old maid.”
“All right . . . Ruby. You were understandably shaken the night your husband was killed. You said no one came to mind as a possible suspect, but you’ve had time to reflect.”
Her jade eyes focused on him. “Nobody’s come to mind.”
“That’s surprising. Your husband seems to have made enemies within the bail bonding community.”
“I told you, Al didn’t confide much in his side of the business.”
“Why not if you were working with him?”
Ruby paused for a moment. “I believe it was his way of protecting me.”
“We deal with killers and child molesters, and competitors who are barely above that level.”
“You said you handled the paperwork. You would have overheard his calls. You must have picked up on something. Someone with a grudge. A jealous competitor who wanted a piece of his business.”
“They’re all jealous competitors who want a piece of his business,” she said.
“I understand he was lobbying the state legislature to strengthen licensing regulations for your industry.”
She nodded. “Al believed stricter requirements would prevent abuse by the less reputable among us.”
And push out more of her husband’s competition, he suspected, especially if the regulations were written in a way that benefited his business.
“He seemed to be alone in his belief,” he said.
“I can’t imagine someone would kill him over legislation.”
He could. But while none of Al Dark’s competitors appeared to be fans of Al Dark, none had offered specific names of one of their own who hated the man to the point of murdering him. If a fellow bondsman killed Al Dark, they weren’t about to rat on him. Probably were secretly praising him.
With one exception. One name popped up, and more than once. No outright accusations. But a strongly implied motive.
The red-headed woman now sitting behind Al Dark’s desk.
That might explain her no nonsense, business-like attitude. She wasn’t a surviving woman in grief. She now owned a lucrative business.
He cleared his throat. “How would you describe your relationship with your husband?”
Her guard instantly went up and the curtains closed on her eyes.
“What does that have to do with his murder?”
“Answer the question, please . . . Ruby.”
“I loved my husband.”
“Were you two having marital problems?”
“What couple doesn’t.”
To a man, the bondsmen and the two officers at the Bond Desk alleged that Ruby and Al Dark had been fighting, to the point that the marriage was on the rocks. How they knew wasn’t clear, and what the fights were over only drew multiple conjectures he sensed weren’t based on anything concrete.
Strangely, he’d been unable to come up with the names of girlfriends whom Ruby might have confided in or cried on their shoulders. Whether by design or a possessive husband was unclear.
Whatever the root of their fights, Ruby and Al Dark had big personalities that clashed. Several bondsmen speculated that she had ambitions of divorcing her husband and taking over his business.
Maybe his murder was to hurry along the process.
Yet the same bondsmen asserted that Ruby wasn’t up to the task of running a bail bond company. Her husband had been the brains, they said, even if they didn’t like how his brain worked to their detriment. He was Ruby’s sugar daddy and she would fail without him. They did nothing to hide their gleeful anticipation that Get Out Quick Bail Bonds was not long for this world, and they were sharpening their knives to carve up the corpse.
One of the Bond Desk officers at the jail confirmed the resentment other bondsmen held for Al Dark, and that none would grieve over the demise of his business, though the officer—a sad sack of a man—hoped Ruby Dark would make a go of it. “She’s a fox,” he’d said with a leer that Reed wanted to wipe off his face with a fist. “I’d love to see her come in more often. A helluva lot better lookin’ than Al.”
Yet Reed sensed their eager anticipation of the collapse of Get Out Quick Bail Bonds was premature. They underestimated Ruby Dark at their peril. She had a steeliness to her. And while she lacked her husband’s experience writing high-end bonds, he suspected she had the one trait that kept the best bondsmen in business—an innate instinct for sizing up whether potential clients sitting in jail would show up for their court appearances—or skip.
“Were you two considering divorce?” he pressed.
Ruby crossed her arms. “Where are you going with this?”
“Did your husband cheat on you?
“Is that why you suspect I might have killed him?”
“I didn’t say you killed him.”
“You didn’t have to. I’ve been around accused enough to know the first suspect in a murder is often the spouse.”
Okay, she was a suspect he conceded to himself. Their search of the parking lot area had turned up no murder weapon. It would have been next to impossible for her to have shot her husband, hidden the gun, and then returned to his side by the time the cops arrived. But she did not have to pull the trigger to kill him. People hired people for that kind of work. The coroner had determined a .22 revolver had done the job on Al Dark. That suggested a pro. Some guy flown in from Chicago or Boston or Vegas.
“A jealous husband could have murdered him,” he tossed out.
“My husband did not cheat on me.”
The firmness in her voice made him wonder if she’d gone to the extent of investigating her husband for such an indiscretion.
“He physically abuse you?”
“No,” came her reply with no hesitation. She leaned forward on her desk. “If you’re going to waste your time looking at me for his murder, hon, I’ll do my own investigating.”
He shook his head. “Leave that to us, understand?”
She silently held her pose, but didn’t acquiesce, either.
“How long were you two married?” he asked.
“Long enough to know we loved each other and he wasn’t cheating on me.”
“You came to Denver and opened your bond business seven, eight years ago, is that correct?”
“Where did you come from?”
“A lot of places.”
“Did you and your husband run a bail bond business in those other places?”
“What we did before we came here has no relevance.”
“Someone from his past might have thought otherwise.”
Her eyes held steady, betraying nothing.
Her reticence reinforced what he’d learned from the bondsmen and Bond Desk officers. They knew nothing about Al and Ruby prior to them showing up in Denver and opening a bail bond office, first on Colfax and later above the Snip-Snip Clinic.
Not that they didn’t offer rumors—Al Dark had been an operative for the CIA and later an undercover vice cop. He’d run a multi-million-dollar insurance scam in Atlanta. Ruby Dark had run a high-class prostitution ring in Miami and served a year in California for fencing stolen credit cards.
A fingerprint check proved none of this. Al Dark had no criminal record on file, no record of military service, nothing. The same for his wife. Their prints were registered with the Colorado Division of Insurance when they obtained a license to operate as bail agents. Their fingerprints would be on file in other states if they’d registered as bondsmen, but that would take time.
It was if the couple had landed in Denver from another planet.
“Look, Mrs. Dark—Ruby,” he said. “Your lack of cooperation won’t help us find your husband’s killer.”
She leaned back in the executive chair. After a long pause, she said, “We had debt problems, detective, if you must know. That’s what we fought over.”
“How much debt?” he asked.
“I won’t go into the gory numbers. My husband was a lavish spender. You’ve probably observed that by now. He was making a lot of money but he was spending more than he was making. He bought whatever struck his fancy. I tried to rein him in but to no avail. I didn’t realize how much debt he’d run up, however, until he was killed and I started going through the company books and our personal finances. Al was a money alcoholic. And like the typical alcoholic’s spouse, I didn’t recognize the seriousness of his addiction until it was too late. Suffice it to say, this business and our home are hanging by a thread. It would have been stupid for me to have killed him.”
“Life insurance?” he asked. “You must have—”
She laughed. “Al had no life insurance. He didn’t trust insurance companies. Preferred spending premium money on his toys. We also didn’t have kids to consider. He said if anything happened to him, I was a big girl and could take care of myself.”
That still didn’t rule out the possibility she had him murdered to stop his spendthrift ways and take over the operation. Or she had him killed for other reasons, not realizing at the time how badly in debt they were.
Then again, there were those bondsmen preparing to carve up the remains of Get Out Quick Bail Bonds. Plenty of motive there.
“Any chance other bondsmen were aware of your debt problems?” he asked. “Killed him to take advantage of it?”
“Doubtful, but possible.”
“Who did he owe money to?”
She shrugged. “Who didn’t he? He mortgaged our house, and our second home in the mountains. We own this building but it’s mortgaged, too. We owe money to banks, credit cards, you name it. I still don’t have a handle on all of it. ”
“Someone blackmailing him?”
He shrugged. “Was he a gambler? Owed money to a loan shark?”
She shook her head.
“Any chance he borrowed from another bondsman and he killed him when he wouldn’t pay up?”
“Perhaps they figured they’d more than make up for it by putting you out of business and siphoning off the gravy bonds he wrote.”
For a fleeting moment, that scenario found a home in Ruby’s eyes.
Then it was gone. “If that’s the killer’s goal, he’ll have to do it over my dead body.”
§ § § § §
Six days later, Detective Morgan Reed returned to Ruby Dark’s office. The neon sign that faced 13th Street, Get Out Quick Bail Bonds, still glowed as he walked across the street from police plaza. He glanced down the block at Bail Bonds Row, which T-boned 13th, with its half-dozen turn-of-the-century homes flashing their signs. He wondered who would win the turf war over Al Dark’s business—them or Ruby.
A part of him hoped she would prevail, though he wasn’t sure why he felt that way. Bail bond agents weren’t on his Christmas card list.
He walked around to the back of the spay-neuter clinic and took the stairs to the second floor. Discretion from the public seemed a good idea.
Ruby was on the phone. Well-dressed as usual.
“His mother has agreed to sign the contract?” she asked. She paused to listen, then, “The full premium up front, no payment plan. She can do that?” Another pause. “All right, I’ll start on the paperwork.” She hung up.
“New business?” he said.
An enigmatic smile crossed her face and she nodded.
“A sizable bond?”
“Bigger than anything I’ve ever written. But I gotta learn some time.”
“Good luck,” he said. He settled into a chair. “I have some other good news for you, Ruby.”
“We’ve made an arrest.”
Oddly, no reaction of relief or joy.
“Glad to know it’s not me,” she said evenly.
He nodded an apology. “No, it’s not you.”
He also felt pleased about that, not having to arrest her.
“Who?” she asked.
“One of your competitors, Eric Stone. Works as an agent for Easy Out Bonds.”
She nodded, again with no sense of shock or joy at the news. “I know Eric. Why do you suspect him?”
“A personal beef. He claimed your husband stole a lucrative client from him.”
She scoffed. “Al didn’t steal clients from other bondsmen. He didn’t need to.”
“He said nothing to you regarding a conflict with Stone?”
“As I said, he didn’t confide much. How did you come up with this lead?”
“We received a tip that Stone and your husband got into a fight at the Lincoln Street Tavern two nights before his murder. Punches were thrown. According to the bar staff and two customers, Stone made death threats against your husband.”
“No arrest at the time?”
“No. The staff kicked them out. The place gets enough visits by cops.”
“This tip came from whom?”
Ruby shook her head in obvious skepticism.
“Stone copped to the brawl,” Reed said, “and that the fight was over a potential client. Were you aware your husband was at the tavern that night?”
She thought for a moment. “Yes. He stayed late and I went home that night. It was one of his favorite hangouts. Met a number of future clients there. I don’t like the place, personally, and I’m not a drinker.”
“Did he mention the fight?”
“Did you notice bruises on him when he got home?”
“No. But Al was six-three and Eric is, what, five-nine if he’s wearing Elton John shoes?”
“Doesn’t mean he didn’t land a punch.”
Ruby interlaced long graceful fingers and put her forefingers to her pursed red lips. “So you believe Eric called Al here that night and shot him as he walked for his car?”
“Yes. There’s a pay phone down Bail Bonds Row. Stone was on duty that night at Easy Out. Alone. It would have been easy for him to call from the pay phone, dash over here, shoot your husband, and return to his office. You heard no vehicle pull away, and neither did anyone else, which suggests the killer left the scene on foot.”
“You didn’t arrest Eric based only on the bar fight and your conjectures. You must have more solid evidence, detective.”
“We obtained a warrant and searched Easy Out. We found a twenty-two caliber revolver stashed in a file cabinet. The identical weapon used on your husband. It’s registered to Eric Stone.”
Finally, surprise came into Ruby’s face. “Pretty dumb move on Eric’s part. Use his own gun and then leave it to be found so easily.”
“Lots of criminals are dumb.”
“Or someone borrowed it.”
“Sure, it’s possible. But considering the death threat at the bar, it’s not likely. The most obvious answer is often the right answer when it comes to crime. Why are you so dubious, Ruby?”
“I said I know Eric. I doubt he killed my husband.”
He began to feel defensive. “At his arraignment this morning, the judge wasn’t doubtful. He agreed there was probable cause. I could have done without him setting bail for the guy, but—”
“So I heard.”
He canted his head. “What do you mean you heard?” He glanced at her telephone. “A reporter call you?”
Ruby sank back into the executive chair. “I talked to Eric’s attorney.”
He wrinkled his brow. “What?”
“That was Eric Stone’s defense attorney on the phone when you came in.”
He stared at her. “You mean you’re—”
Ruby nodded. “Yes, I’m going to post Eric’s bond.”
For a moment, Reed couldn’t get any words out. No wonder she’d shown no relief or joy when he announced the arrest. She already knew. And she’d strung him along, slyly letting him reveal some of the case they had against Stone.
Yeah, her competition was underestimating her.
Finally, he said, “You’re posting bail for the man who murdered your husband?”
“Why on earth would you do that?”
“I told you the other day, I need the income.”
Reed shook his head.
“Al would support me in this,” she went on.
He leaned forward. “The judge set bail at three-quarters of a million dollars.”
She smiled. “Which makes for a nice premium, doesn’t it?”
“Are you backed by a surety company?”
“No. I told you Al distrusted insurance companies.”
He opened his hands in disbelief. “That means you’re personally on the hook to the court if this guy skips and disappears forever.”
“I’ll have his collateral, but yes, that’s a possible risk.”
“But you have all your husband’s debts on top of that! You don’t have any money to pay the court if it comes down to that.”
“The court doesn’t need to know. I’m riding on Al’s reputation.” She leaned forward to emphasize her point. “Let’s keep it that way.”
“You could lose everything, Ruby.”
“I’ll lose everything if I don’t make bonds.”
He struggled to wrap his head around it. “Why the hell would Eric Stone hire you to post bond? He made death threats against your husband. Why hire his widow?”
“Because I begged him.”
He threw his hands up in confusion.
“Eric’s lawyer, Randall Taylor, called shortly after Eric’s arrest—out of courtesy and sympathy. I told him I wanted the bond if the judge set one. Begged him, frankly. He was as bulldozed as you are. I explained I needed the money to keep the business going. I didn’t mention Al’s debts, but I suspect Randall had an inkling. He was aware of Al’s spending habits.”
“He went for it?”
“Randall often brought clients to Al. He trusted him.”
“You’re not Al Dark.”
“I’ll overlook your insult.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that you’re—”
She waved him to stop. “It was his client’s decision, anyway, not his. He promised he’d put in a good word for me, even if it was a highly unusual arrangement.”
“Unusual is right. Stone agreed to this? I would think every bail bond agent in town wanted a piece of that action. Including the guys where Stone works. Their chance to get the action your business usually got.”
“True. But I made Eric an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
“I discounted my fee to twelve percent instead of the standard fifteen. And if any other bondsman tried to match it, I’d cut it again.”
“That sure as hell will endear you to your competitors.”
She shrugged off his concerns. “Eric trusts me.”
“Can you trust him? He killed your husband.”
“Eric swears he’s innocent. I believe that’s one reason he was willing to have me post his bond. To show that.”
“You’re being naïve, Ruby. Every guilty guy swears he’s innocent.”
“I’m not naïve. And I’m a pretty good judge of character. He’ll be good for the bond.”
“You’re gambling your business on that.”
“Bondsmen are gamblers by nature. Besides, whether Eric is or is not the killer is irrelevant. The majority of people we bond out are guilty. Some are despicable excuses for human beings, but are still entitled to bond. Al never discriminated. He always said the only rules were whether someone was a jump risk and whether they had the financial collateral to back up the bond if they did skip. And of those two rules, the most important one is how likely they are to skip. Seizing a defendant’s collateral to satisfy a failed bond is costly, time consuming, and sometimes futile. What’s more important is what their souls tell you. What emotional ties will compel them to stay? Do they have family, trustworthy friends, how long have they lived here, do they have a job? I know Eric’s mother, too. She’s putting up her house and savings for the bond. That will motivate her son to stay. It’s a decision you make with your gut, not your head.”
He sighed and rose to his feet. “You’re crazy to do this, Ruby.”
She rose with him, her fingertips touching the desk. “I appreciate your concern for my welfare, detective. But one has to be a little crazy to be in this business.”
“I hope for your sake it’s the right decision.”
“I intend to keep this business going,” she said. “In part, because I also intend to see my husband’s killer brought to justice.”
“We have your husband’s killer.”
“With all due respect, hon, you’ve got the wrong man. You haven’t said in so many words, but it’s obvious my husband’s murder has the marks of a planned hit. Probably by a professional hired by someone. Someone with a strong motive. Not the results of a bar fight two days before. And if you don’t see that and investigate accordingly, I intend to hunt down that killer myself.”
Part of him admired Ruby’s tenacity, even if it was absurdly dangerous. But he wasn’t about to encourage her playing detective.
“I’d strongly advise against investigating on your own, Ruby. It’s dangerous. Let’s say you’re right. Let’s say it’s someone besides Stone who had it in for your husband and your business. One of your competitors right down the street. You poke around and push the killer too hard, and you’re gonna end up dead in the parking lot like your husband.” He paused and looked straight into her jade-green eyes. “And to be honest, I would hate to see that.”
A smile crossed her face. The first relaxed smile he’d seen since the night of Al Dark’s murder.
“When you realize Eric’s not your man, detective, come around again. We can work together on finding the real killer.”