In a world of fixed fights and mob influence, Ray Ward and his brother, Rex, are two of the only clean fighters in town. With Ray in the corner and Rex in the ring they are headed for the big time . . . until that fateful night.
Now Ray has a score to settle using a lifetime of lessons in how to fight back.
Dean Fokoli is a detective with a new partner, an alcoholic wife, and a guilty conscience. At least the boxer on the radio who just got beat to a pulp won’t end up in his homicide file. But when the dregs of the crooked fight world start turning up dead, Fokoli is on the hunt for the killer. The chase will take him to the underbelly of the Kansas City night and hopefully keep him one step ahead of his past.
One Too Many Blows To The Head is a razor-edged story of revenge, redemption, and what happens when you confront the ghosts of the past.
Excelsior Fight Hall
Kansas City, Spring 1940
The bell rang and round two started just like the first. The young black kid came out with his arms swinging and his feet moving a mile a minute, like one of the Nicholas brothers doing a tap dance. I wondered if maybe they were related.
He busted jabs through the white kid’s defenses, what there was of them anyway, and he knew just when to hook up and catch his dazed opponent right on the chin.
Not that anyone but me was noticing. This was the walkout fight; the undercard that goes on after the main event. It was late, almost eleven thirty. The main went the full twelve rounds and ended in a draw. The crowd was pissed about that so when it was done they started filing out, throwing their ticket stubs down in anger.
I sat in the shadows against the back wall; kind of how I’d lived the past year. I didn’t know if I was looking for a new boxer to manage but if I was, this kid had the goods. I figured I could mold him into something at least a little bit like Rex.
My brother, Rex. Dead a year now.
I’m Ray. Rex was six years younger. He was a boxer and a damn good one. Our Pop was a fighter. Welterweight. Skinny little bastard but could punch like a south bound freight train. He taught Rex and me. I was no good at it.
I can hit all right. I know how to run the defense too, which is just as important. My right is good enough to lay out a drunk in one punch. That comes in handy in bar fights let me tell you, but my muscles don’t coil up tight enough to slug it out with a real fighter. Rex was different. He studied under the old man and when Rex hit you, boy, you knew you’d been hit.
I knew I was going to stop punching and start managing him when he was fifteen and he shut my lights out at twenty-one.
He came at me like an angry hornet and stung just as bad—gave me a chipped tooth and a cut over my left eye as a souvenir. And that was just from sparring.
By eighteen he was making the rounds and working up a fifteen and zero record with twelve knockouts. We worked a legit fight ring in Moline, Illinois then a basement six-rounder in Davenport that only went three rounds. The promoter got good and drunk that night on all the money he made. No one ever bet on a kid as young as Rex unless they’d seen him fight before. He’d throw down with guys twice his age and twenty pounds heavier and still give them a drubbing.
All the while I stayed in his corner. I was manager, cut man, spit bucket boy—the whole nine. We were making traveling money, but not enough to hire a whole crew. Besides, we didn’t need anybody else, us being brothers and all. Most of our coaching went unspoken. He knew when he screwed up and I sure as hell didn’t have to tell him.
One night in Lawrence he came back to the corner after the seventh and our entire exchange went like this:
Me: “You see it?”
Him: “I see it.”
Me: “Then go get it.”
He went out and beat the tar out of a guy who looked like he could bend a crowbar and then pick his teeth with it—what teeth he had left after Rex was done with him.
Yeah, we were going places.
This was our way of living down the trouble we had with Pop. You see, most fighters get into the ring because they think it’s easy money and then get out of the game because they get punched out or realize they’re no good. The consequences of being no good are a headache every Sunday after fight night and then, eventually, a splitting headache every day of your life that don’t go away. And that just ain’t worth the twenty-five bucks in the purse.
Then there are career guys—fellas with thick heads on thick necks who are too dumb to know any other way to make a buck besides punching smaller guys for money. This was Pop. Even when I was a kid I knew he was as dumb as a bag of rocks but what can you do? He’s my Pop so I got to love him. He didn’t get an education so I figured he had an excuse for being dim but he wasn’t so stupid he couldn’t earn a living. He figured out ways to make do. He just had to find ways that didn’t use the smallest muscle in his body—his brain.
During the Depression he started riding the rails looking for work. The hobo camps in those days were rough spots. Guys would slit your throat for a can of beans. Men learned to fight in those camps and if they wanted to make it out, they had to be good. The fights were bare-knuckle brawls with no referee. Two men making fist music by a campfire with twelve angry drunks hooting and hollering for blood and hoping to be first in line when someone got k.o.’d so they could swoop in and steal his shoes.
Pop got in with a promoter who trolled the camps looking for sluggers he could prop up and use for target practice with his real Joes. He’d line ‘em up, pay ‘em fifty cents to go in the ring and get the snot beat out of them and then send them right back to the camps with a broken nose or a shattered hand. In those times the fights were a sure bet for promoters looking to fill a venue. When the whole country is depressed what better entertainment is there than to go watch some sucker get his clock cleaned?
Crowds back then were out for blood too, so said Pop. The fans didn’t feel they got their dime’s worth unless the canvas was painted red by the end of the night.
When you make a life out of fighting, fighting becomes your life. Pop started in on me and Rex when we were kids. I first got wind of how good his jab was at the dinner table back home. If I was horsing around I’d get a sock in the ear that stung outside and rang inside and I never would have seen him move his arm. He’d reach out and pop me a good one and then be back with a fork full of mashed potatoes before I knew what hit me.
It was when he started in on Mom that we had trouble. There wasn’t much we could do at first, being so young. By the time we got old enough to do any fighting back we didn’t know any better; it was just how it was around the house. Mom never complained and we just grew up thinking that was the way things went. Guess we weren’t much smarter than the old man.
Then the bastard beat her face in so bad she went into a coma for three days. When she came out of it she wasn’t the same. She had a far away look most of the time and she was jittery like a mouse stealing cheese off a trap. Loud noises made her shriek and we couldn’t come up on her from behind.
Pop didn’t stay around much longer after that. I think because of the way Rex and I started looking at him. It was that summer when Rex turned from fifteen to sixteen and I first saw how he could really fight. Pop did too. He saw how Rex punched better than he ever could and I think he got scared that when we finally decided to fight back that he would lose, and lose permanently. So he took a powder.
That was five years ago. Pop always talked about heading for the coast and I’m sure he did just that. He used to talk about Mexico too but I doubt he had the guts. He could make enough dough to keep in booze and a steak every Saturday if he kept on punching. Eventually I figured he’d punch himself out and die in a motel of a cerebral hemorrhage. I only hoped that someone would do the homework enough to let me know so I could dance a jig.
Mom lasted a few more years. Most of the money Rex and I made when he first started punching for dollars went back to her. When she passed we stayed in the house but we were on the road so much it looked exactly the same way as the day she died.
So that’s the history lesson.
The bell rang in the fourth round and the place was nearly empty. The black kid, Lewis he was called, came out fast and nimble like it was round one and he hadn’t already been punching himself silly through three.
I started thinking maybe I should take a closer look at young Lewis. Maybe it was time to get back in the game. It felt like more than a year since…since all that happened.
It happened here. In the Excelsior. I don’t know why I come back time and again, but I do about once a week. Self torture. Guilt. All of the above.
I never sat too close for fear that someone might recognize me and I’d have to rehash the whole thing out loud. I played the film back in my head plenty, thanks anyway—Rex’s death in that ring and then all the killing that went on after.
I never saw much of Pop in me until after that first killing. I looked in the mirror when I washed my hands and it was like looking at a picture of him. Scared me senseless but also made me feel like the hands that committed the crime weren’t really mine. That’s what I wanted to believe.
I didn’t start the whole mess. But I got angry and it built. Once that cork popped, there wasn’t much I could do to stop it. I’d never killed anybody before Rex died but after it was all said and done I’d left enough bodies in my wake to start a baseball team.
A guy sees his brother killed in front of him and he damn well wants to do something about it. Only Bible verse I know in the whole wide world is “an eye for an eye.”
Just as I figured he would, the ref called the fight after the white kid’s eye opened up. Maybe he got the high sign from the owner to shut it down since no one was left in the joint anyway. I got up and walked down the tunnel after Lewis. He headed back to the locker room carrying his own stool. I wondered if anyone had ever given him a lesson before in his life or if he just grew up fighting like so many of the black boys I knew when I was a kid.
It wouldn’t be normal practice for a white man to manage a black fighter, but I didn’t give a shit and besides, a little publicity was a good thing in this racket. If half the people in the audience were there to see your boy get the tar beat out of him, so be it; as long as their money was green.
No one stopped me as I headed deeper into the tunnel toward the locker rooms. The staff had checked out as soon as the bell rang. Smokes were already lit and bottles already opened.
I hadn’t been to the locker rooms since that night. As many times as I’d been in the building, I never went back to the last place I saw my brother.
I stopped walking. Lewis was good, damn good, but I’d have to catch up with him another night. I wasn’t ready yet.
A hell of a lot happened in the days after Rex was killed. A hell of a lot to forget. Sometimes I feel like I’ve forgotten part of it, but I know it’s there just under the surface. Scratch a tiny bit and I can tell you the whole story from first bell to the final round.
Detective Dean Fokoli
Kansas City, Spring 1939
In my sleep, I reached out for Laura. Her side of the bed was cold. I opened my eyes and listened to the sounds of her moving around in the kitchen. There was the clink of ice in a glass followed by the shuffling of her feet to the table. I could tell by the way she fell into the chair she’d been at the bottle for a couple of hours already—and I was in bed, sleeping through it all. I showered and shaved and started the coffee. Then I poured Laura a cup. She swiped at it with a clumsy hand and sent it sailing across the kitchen. “Bastard,” she mumbled.
There wasn’t much I could say to that, so I helped her stand up while I ducked the swings she aimed at my face. She didn’t smell right anymore. The whites of her eyes were turning brown—just a little, but I could see it.
I undressed her and put her in the shower. She bit me. It wasn’t a hard bite, but it smarted a little. “I hate you,” she said, but she was barely conscious by then. I washed her hair, washed her body, toweled her off, and put her on the bed. Then I dressed—and poured out every bottle I could find, knowing it wasn’t all of them. When I carried them out to the trash I stood over the can and pulled out my wallet. I’d kept the picture of Sylvia, thinking maybe Laura would agree to the divorce, thinking maybe me and Sylvia would leave Kansas City and make a fresh start someplace else—someplace better.
It was water under the bridge. I pulled the photo out and dropped it on top of Laura’s bottles.
I didn’t look back as I climbed in the car and left for work. There really wasn’t any point. I pulled away from the curb and tried to whistle. Spring in Kansas City is a crap shoot. It can be rainy or sunny, warm or cold. Today was sunny and warm and reminded me of baseball games and cut grass. Good things. The drive to work was nice.
Captain Tolene was standing at my desk sifting through case files—ones I’d been working on for awhile. “Morning, Dean,” he said when he saw me, like snooping through my stuff was just an ordinary thing to be doing on an ordinary day.
“Help you?” I asked.
Most everyone in the homicide division was already in, typing reports, reviewing new cases. They tried to ignore what Tolene was doing. It wasn’t easy, so they ignored me too. I shook my head and waited.
“Just looking a few things over,” Tolene said. He smiled when he said it, but it was tight, and it didn’t quite reach his eyes. Seemed like he had that problem a lot lately.
He was leaning against my chair a little, making it impossible for me to sit down without asking him to move. I wasn’t about to ask him to do anything of the sort, so I stood there, hat in hand, and shuffled my feet. He moved the file up a bit, enough so I could see the name on the label. Mark Pollard. My old partner. Dead now. My fault. No proof of that, you understand, but Tolene still sniffed around as much as he could, hoping something would break so he could nail me.
He snapped the folder shut. “Mind if I hold onto this for awhile?”
“Sure,” I said. “Knock yourself out.”
He gave another one of those tight smiles and disappeared into his office with the file.
I looked around the squad room. Heads stayed bent over desks, phones rang here and there, and the room seemed to be working at full speed. But quietness lingered, like when a hunter in the field is too loud and all the birds and bugs grow still. Right then it felt a little like I was in the crosshairs.
My new partner wasn’t in yet. Just as well. Hard to train a guy who can’t respect you. Matter of time, I told myself. It’s all just a matter of time. Didn’t know what I meant by that then. Felt like things were shutting down, closing up—for me, for Laura, for the job. Maybe that’s what I meant.
My phone rang and I sat down to answer it. It was Ted, wanting my bet for the fight Saturday night. Rex Ward vs. Kid Delancey.
I told him who I liked for the fight. Then I got to work.
Matter of time, I said to myself again. Matter of time.
J.B. Kohl is the author of The Deputy’s Widow, published in 2008 by Arctic Wolf Publishing. In the spring of 2008, she read a short story by Eric Beetner and decided to pester him until he agreed to collaborate on something.
Resistance was futile.
And so, One Too Many Blows to the Head was created—to live and thrive in the dark alleys of 1939 Kansas City.
In addition to writing fiction, J.B. works as a technical and fiction editor. She lives in Virginia with her husband and three children.
Eric Beetner is an award-winning short story and screenwriter. He and J.B. connected through his work with the Film Noir Foundation and he wrote to tell her how much he liked The Deputy’s Widow. From that simple correspondence came a bicoastal collaboration and a quickly finished novel, despite the fact that they have never met in person.
Eric is also a TV and film editor, director and producer who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters.