Ray Ward spends nights thinking about his brother’s death and the blood-soaked days that followed. Dean Fokoli is off the force, disgraced by his dirty dealings, left to scrape for pennies as a private eye. When Ray receives a mysterious package from his sister containing a plea for help and a reel of 8mm film, there’s a problem – Ray doesn’t have a sister.
Now two former enemies must team up, travel halfway across the country to search the dark shadow of Hollywood’s spotlight. In for more than they bargained for, Ray and Fokoli plunge behind the silver screen to unearth tinsel town’s dirty secrets. And two men with nothing left to lose can stir up some serious trouble.
Kansas City. Spring, 1941
I hadn’t used my fists much since then. Since the night my brother died, and the days after. I guess I should say I hadn’t used my fists in anger. My fists get a good workout down in the basement of my house in Rex’s old training setup. I attack the heavy bag, pound out a rhythm on the speed-bag to make Count Basie jealous. I jump rope, lift weights. I shadow box.
Futile, really, shadow boxing. Still it’s what I feel like my life’s become. You stand in front of a cinder block wall dodging and ducking, swinging in the air at an opponent who matches your every move, who knows your strengths and weaknesses.
Pointless, fighting yourself.
But, that’s what I do down there in the damp concrete gym. I beat myself up. I spar and joust with the past and the man I thought I was, trying to understand how I could have gone so off the rails.
I’ve been over it a thousand times and I have no regrets. I keep going as much for Rex as for me, living a life he might have wanted but never got the chance to live. I forgave myself a long time ago, but that shadow is still there.
Since that week, those troubles, I’ve been a model citizen. That’s what made that day walking home from the grocery store such a shock. I caught a glimpse of the stranger I saw in the mirror two years ago.
I don’t get out much. I don’t talk to many people. I stay in the house and work out, I read, I go to the movies now and then which is good because you can sit alone and not interact with anyone and nobody thinks you’re odd. On my block I’ve become the weirdo my nine-year-old self would have loved to ding-dong-ditch and throw rocks at his window.
Coming home from the market that day I was just minding my own, a single bag of groceries in my arms. The usual staples. I’d been living on a small rotation of about five meals I know how to cook.
I recognized the couple walking parallel to me on the sidewalk across the street. Around my neighborhood I try not to be seen, but I can see; and this marriage was not the happiest on the block. He was big. Victor was his name. Greek, I think. The kind of guy who intimidates a woman because he can. It came easy to him. Probably learned it from his father.
I didn’t know her name which seemed in line with her station in life. Be quiet, sit down, make me dinner, have more babies.
The raised tone of Victor’s voice was as familiar to the refrain of the neighborhood as the McTaggart’s dog, so hearing him shouting didn’t even make my head turn. It was the punch.
All my life I’ve heard the sound of men hitting men so much that I can tell you the pitch of a sock to the jaw versus a blow to the gut with a blindfold on. I can tell you if the guy doing the hitting is a righty or a lefty. I can tell you if any bones broke or if it was a knockout just by the music of a fist on flesh.
Head down, grocery bag firmly held, I can tell you it was a shot to her cheekbone thrown with a sweeping right fist. It was no slap to gain her attention, no stomach punch to prove a point. This was a strike with all four knuckles meant to do her harm.
I stopped in my tracks. I turned and heard the distant sound of the McTaggart’s dog reel off fifteen barks in a row like a Tommy gun.
She knelt in front of him holding her cheek. Victor loomed over her with his fist cocked back again as if she might actually stand up or try to fight back. His breath came out raspy, ragged from the yelling. They stood like that, frozen, as if they were waiting for a referee to finish counting to ten.
I’m not one to mess in other people’s business. I’m even less of one to help a stranger. I guess I do have some sense of justice and even a loner like me has his limits. This was a time when to ignore it, to not do something . . . well, it might as well have been my fist that cracked her cheek.
I kept hold of the grocery bag as I crossed the street, I don’t know why. I barely felt its weight. My workouts had been intense and long and my body was never in better shape, even during my brief career in the ring. Sparring with Rex used to keep me fit but now that I had taken over his training regimen, and then some, I became taut and solid as an archer’s bow. I would have fought middleweight and if my heavy bag could speak it would tell you that I can bring the hurt.
Victor didn’t notice me crossing. He had that tunnel vision inexperienced fighters get. I was right up next to him by the time he turned. I broke him out of some sort of trance and when he saw me he relaxed his fist and shook it out. I could see his knuckles were thick and calloused, damaged the way a nose looks after being broken for the fifth time. I don’t know what he did for a living but I want to believe it was the job that gave him those hardened mushrooms and not overuse on her face.
She still didn’t make a sound, scared silent and knowing the consequences if she cried.
He waited for me to speak. I didn’t. I set down the grocery bag and quickly told myself, Don’t, but my muscles kept on moving. I reached out a hand to her and lifted her up by the arm. She didn’t want to stand so I forced her.
Victor was staring daggers at me by then but I didn’t care about him or his meat paws. With the same hand I lifted his wife I coiled a fist and brought it around into his gut. It was a lot of gut and he sucked wind for a moment but didn’t crumple the way his wife did.
Knocking him off guard gave me enough time to square up, set my feet, bring my hands up and reach back with my right, getting just enough space between me and him to push my body forward. I followed through from my shoulder down the arm to the fist and sent a shot straight and solid with the full force of my body pivoting toward him. It landed on his jaw.
Punching a man on the cheek is a fool’s game. You’re much more likely to break your hand than his face. Come to think of it, that could be a good reason for his knuckles to look the way they did. Bad technique in too many bar fights. You hit him in the jaw and there’s room there to give so as your punch follows through, if you threw a good one that is, it can do some real damage.
Hitting another human felt different from the sand-filled bags in my basement. A primitive spot deep in my brain thought it felt very good.
I recoiled the arm and stood ready to throw another, or to dodge whatever was coming my way. I didn’t need to. He doubled over and spit two teeth to the sidewalk before following them down. He landed hard on his forehead and that started to bleed, quickly joining the flow from his mouth in a tiny creek watering the weeds in the cement cracks.
Her hand fell away from her cheek. A slight smile crept over her. I’d probably just sentenced her to another beating behind closed doors but she seemed to think it was worth it.
She spoke quietly to me. “Thank you, mister. Why did you . . .? Never mind. Just thank—”
I was already crossing the street. I didn’t do it for her. I shouldn’t have done it at all. It was upsetting to remember a part of me that was capable of such violence existed inside. I hated to see it roar back to life; a bear roused from hibernation.
Like I said, I guess I have some notion of justice.
It’s crazy to think, but that was the same day I got the package.
I got home and iced my hand even though it didn’t hurt much. I replayed the sound in my head; the connection, the cracking of teeth, the unhinging of jawbone, the air expelling from lungs. All textbook. Enough to make you want to step back into the ring.
I’d been making my living off three fighters I owned a piece of. With the money from Rex’s life insurance and his share of our purse money from his fight days, all of which went to me in his will, I laid low and didn’t come out of my hole for six months after the funeral. When I did I figured the money would run out sooner or later, even if I lived like a hermit. I lurked in the fight halls and found some boys I liked the look of. I could make more money off them if I put myself back in the corner and became a full-fledged manager but I like being a silent partner. The boys do okay and none of them have ever met me.
So aside from some sore knuckles and an angry Greek neighbor I had everything well under control in my small life, shadows and all.
Then the package came.
It was in a box wrapped with twine and the return address had no name, just a street I didn’t know and a city: Hollywood, California. Inside I found a reel of 8mm film and an envelope with my name scrawled on it. I opened it and read a letter than was rambling, scared and asking for help. It was signed, YOUR SISTER, AUDREY.
Thing is, I don’t have a sister.
When JB wrote Eric in his capacity working with the Film Noir Foundation a friendship was born. When he read her debut novel The Deputy’s Widow, he wrote to tell her how much he enjoyed it and sent along a sample of his own writing that had been circulating the crime fiction webzines. She was hooked and asked if he would ever consider collaborating on anything. They took the first few tentative steps with nothing to lose and it all came so easily that before long an entire novel was finished and soon after, a sequel.
They each continue to write solo novels.
JB Kohl lives in Virginia with her husband and three children. In addition to writing fiction she works as a freelance medical and technical writer/editor. Her first novel The Deputy’s Widow, was released in 2008.
Eric Beetner is an award-winning short story and screenwriter. His short work has been anthologized in Discount Noir (Untreed Reads), Needle magazine, Crimefactory, Murder in the Wind (Second Wind publishing) as well as all the major online crime fiction outlets. He was selected in the top 3 for Storysouth’s Million Writers award for 2010.
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