The Big Fix
On the night Irish Tommy Cork’s murder was planned, nothing very much out of the ordinary happened. Tommy was in the ring, taking a pasting—as usual. Back to the ropes, almost sitting on the second strand, Tommy crouched, gloved hands up in front of his face like a leather fence. He was fighting a strong youngster who was now whaling away with both hands in a moment of wild enthusiasm. Most of his blows were blocked, or ducked by Tommy’s weaving head, but those few that didn’t miss landed with loud thud sounds on the kidneys, head, or in the stomach, visibly shaking up the pale “old man.”
There were only two hundred and thirty-one fans in the fight arena, not counting the TV crew, and although the ring seemed to be a crowded oasis amid the sections of empty seats, Arno and Jake sat back in the shadows of the overhanging balcony—quite alone. Arno was popping tiny hunks of spicy fried coconut into his big mouth. Jake sat there looking almost bored, his sullen face blank.
“Well, what do you think of our pigeon?” Arno asked. “I been casing him for the last three weeks. A washed-up rumdum, hungry most of the time. But a real name—years ago. Fits in fine for us. Lost five of the seven bouts he’s had this year. He’s our new bankroll.”
Jake said, “If the ref don’t stop it, the kid is liable to beat us to it—make Cork a stiff before we can get to him. Look at that dumb kid, wide open and swinging like a rusty gate. Wonder why Cork don’t belt him? You sure he was good—once?”
“The way that kid swings is a crime. If I was in there with him, one punch would end the fight.
“Yeah, it sure would, kid,” Arno said, chewing on the coconut bits which he had purchased in a very fancy grocery, “either way. Jake, tomorrow you start.”
“Nuts, I’m in shape now, for a wreck like him. I could…”
“Shut up,” Arno said calmly but with a hint of whip-like menace under his voice. “We got too good a thing to be queered because you’re a lazy bastard. You got to look the part, be on your toes. Tomorrow you start heavy training, Arno added as Tommy took a hard right on his quivering stomach, fell into a frantic clinch; his body deathly pale as he grabbed the muscular kid punching him.
The referee sort of snarled, “Come on, break clean, boys. Come on, Cork, you’re holding. Break when I tell you!”
Jake shook his head, mumbled, “What a ref, ought to give him a soapbox for his speeches.”
The fight club was a dingy affair. One sports writer swore it still held a horsey smell although it hadn’t been a stable for at least forty years. The stale air was full of smoke and numerous body odors. Somehow the clammy silence also seemed to hold the lingering roar of the few fans, the hoarse, phony yells.
If the club itself had a seamy odor, the cellar dressing room had the additional sharp stinks of damp decay, sweat, and liniments. As if a standard movie scene, the room was dimly lit by a single bulb and deserted except for the fighter on the ancient rubbing table. Tommy lay very still, eyes open, and at first glance seemed dead. The heavy, and wet-with-sweat, towel around his head like a shroud, disappeared into the faded and worn green robe with the large shamrock on the back. His unbandaged hands were neatly folded across his chest and scrawny hairy legs stuck out from the other end of the robe. A thin gold wedding ring was tied to the lace of his left boxing shoe.
Tommy’s face was naturally pale and small (when he was a child his mother used to talk of his “button face”) but numerous punches had left it with a constant puffiness, the nose slightly thick, some scar tissue ridged over his eyes— which were warm and friendly, and a trifle glassy at the moment. It wasn’t an unattractive face. It held a kind of rugged good looks, combined with the cruel cast of a real fighter. His upper lip was thick with a small cut, there was a red-purple mouse under his left eye, and a bloody bruise high up on the other freckled cheek.
Tommy was humming to himself. Although deadly tired he was still full of the good relaxed feeling that comes when a fight is finished—win or lose. The door opened and Tommy raised his head for a second to watch Bobby Becker come in.
Becker was a short plump man in his late fifties, immaculately dressed in a conservative dark blue double-breasted suit, white on white shirt, and a neat dull red bow tie. His round face was pink, the large head shiny bald except for a faint fringe of dirty-white hair. Gold-framed glasses were delicately balanced on his big nose; a heavy black ribbon ran from the glasses to his lapel. His sight was perfect but when Bobby drove a rum truck back during Prohibition days somebody told him glasses made him look like a “professional” man. There was an empty amber cigar holder between his fat lips, which he sucked on now and then. The doctor said his heart wouldn’t stand for cigars any more.
Tommy waved and tried to sit up, but the buzzing returned to his head, so he stretched out again. Here it comes, he thought. That dumb kid had to hit like a mule with his right. Jeez, I never seem to pick a soft one any more.
Becker asked, “What you doing, living here now?” His voice was gentle but shaded with the shrillness which comes to some men in their late years.
“I might at that. What’s the rent?” Tommy said, suddenly thinking, Maybe Bobby can work out something. Let me sleep here in exchange for cleaning up, being a watchman? But it would have to be a secret, or it would spoil my rep.
Becker wrinkled his fat nose. “Sure stinks here.”
“But not of insecticide like the dump I’m living in.”
“Take your shower. I’m going to lock up soon as the TV boys get their equipment out.”
“I’m cooling off.”
“From what? You were cooling off the last two rounds. That kid has a good right.”
Tommy dismissed it with a wave of his left hand. “What right? Any goof can hit if he winds up and lets go like he was in a baseball game. Guy ought to be arrested if he lets himself get hit by that clumsy right.”
“Then you’d get life.”
Tommy forced himself to sit up, talked slowly to keep the buzzing in his head down. “Sony about tonight, Bobby. Kids these days are all headhunters. I didn’t figure he’d have sense enough to go for my body. I had a plan. You saw the way this fool kid kept his hands up high, the way I worked his belly the first two rounds? Trouble was, in the third, when I finally got his guard down, I ran out of steam. Anyway, I wasn’t stopped. I’ll do better the next time.”
Becker moved toward the stained rubbing table as if to sit, then brushed nothing off his sharply creased pants and stood. “Tommy, I don’t know if there’ll be a next time. I don’t know if I can squeeze you in any more for these emergency four-rounders.”
“Aw Bobby, you know I had an off-night. I can go a lousy four rounds any time.”
“Yeah? You barely did tonight. Full of wine?”
“Honest, Bobby, I’m sober. Just an off night. Bobby, you’re the only break and hope I got left in the racket and…”
“Tommy, it may not be up to me. And you can get hurt bad.”
“Hurt? My experience is a big edge, Bobby. They don’t get to me. The kid was lucky to rifle one through to my gut. Otherwise I’d have left-hooked him to death. I always give ’em a good show. Sure, he was a rough kid but… I’ll level with you, Bobby. I sold a pint of blood yesterday afternoon.”
Becker looked horrified, had to keep his glasses from slipping off his nose. “Yesterday? My God, you’re crazy!”
Tommy shrugged, then rubbed his big hands together, examining the lumpy knuckles. “Look, I was hungry, bad hungry. Would it have made any diff if I’d fainted from hunger out there tonight? I figured a day’s rest would do it. It didn’t.”
“You were also gambling the main go would last the distance and you could collect twenty buck for not going on!”
Tommy gave him as much of a grin as his cut lips could make. “Sure, I took a chance on that. You never lose a bet, Bobby? I watched the main event from the exit. That Billy Ash has a nice left. The way he took Georgie Davis out, mixing his punches, reminded me of myself in the Preston fight. I… Don’t look at me like that, Bobby, I’m not going off into past history. Damn, everybody looks at me like I’m a punchy. You know I’ll get up there again, Bobby. My hands are still good, never had no trouble with them….” He knocked on the wooden table, “Once I get eating regular again, get my strength back, I’ll show these green kids what boxing is really like. What a good…”
“Tommy, lad, listen to me. I’ve been your friend for going on fifteen years. I’m the one who first spotted you in the amateurs. Believe me, you’ve had it. Quit now, before your brains are scrambled.”
“Nuts, I’m only thirty-two, I’ll still make the big paydays again. I’ll get up there, you know me, the luck of the Irish.”
Becker sighed. “You and your big talk; you never even been to Ireland. Remember me, I was born in Kilkenny. It’s a poor, hungry, cold country. If there’s any luck, it’s mostly bad.”
“You sound like a lousy Black and Tan.”
Becker held up the back of his fat hand. “Watch your mouth before I finish the shellacking you was taking in the ring.”
“Bobby, you said we been pals. You know me, how I can fight. So I had a bad night but…”
“It was on TV, too. Seeing a guy get a beating isn’t good for the family. The sponsor gets complaints and… Getting to be a hell of a deal where I have to worry about ad executives and what some cigarette man’s wife thinks.”
“But if I hadn’t sold my blood, I’d have flattened this rough kid. Match me with him again and you’ll see. Why, if I was in shape, I would have looked real good against a musclehead like him. Then you could have set me up for a regular four-rounder next week. I win that, maybe one of the mob managers gets interested in me, and I’m making folding dough again.”
Bobby Becker brushed his suit again as he said, “If, if, if. Wise up, Tommy, you’re hanging around for nothing. Even if you still had it, it would be for nothing. I don’t have to tell you TV has killed the racket, strangled the small clubs. You tell me, why should a joker go out and pay to see a bout when he can sit on his butt on his own couch and watch ’em for free? Why not long ago, before the second war, why there was a couple hundred small clubs across the country, at least a dozen I remember within fifty miles of here. Even a willing bum could fight two or three times a month. Now, there ain’t twenty clubs in the whole U.S.A., a lousy three in this state, and I’m the only area operating weekly here. I lose my TV contract, I’m done. You seen the big crowd tonight, three hundred people! Okay, the TV fee carries me, but a pug has no place to learn his trade any more. In the old days a kid had maybe thirty or forty fights before he hit a main event. Now he’s lucky to have thirteen fights in his whole career. Marciano had under fifty when he retired. Things are too tight. The ‘in’ managers keep maybe a dozen guys working steady, the rest don’t make bread. Face it, Tommy, you’ve been washed up for years. Go get a job.”
“They’re waiting for me on Wall Street! This is all I know. I always been a pug, never wanted to be anything else. You know that. I never even had a Social Security card, until last month. You’re wrong, Bobby. If TV has ruined the small clubs, it’s also brought in the big money. Like you said, the pugs today are all novices. Once I get my break, I’ll go over big. How many hundred-bout fighters like myself are around? TV has… Oh my God, I sure hope May didn’t watch me on TV tonight.”
Becker pulled out a folded handkerchief, carefully wiped his cigar holder. Not looking at Tommy he said, “The commission doc said something about revoking your license, kid.”
“What?” The boxer actually leaped off the table.
Becker nodded, replaced the empty holder between his lips. Then he said, “You looked terrible in there, covered up against the ropes most of the time, your legs shaking like you were being killed, the fans screaming to stop it. That’s what I meant by it not being up to me. Well, take your shower. Here’s your dough.” Bobby took a bulky roll of bills from his pants pocket. “Sixty dollars—minus my twenty, minus the fifteen you’re into me from last month. I had to pay your second’s six bucks. That’s thirty-five… forty-one dollars. Here’s yours—nineteen. Does your lip need stitching?”
“Naw, ain’t nothing. You know me, never was a bleeder.” Tommy took a large cracked suitcase from one of the busted wooden wall lockers. Opening the suitcase on the table, he removed wooden shower clogs and a crumpled Turkish towel. The suitcase was jammed with clean and dirty underwear, sweaters, socks, a pair of old shoes, and a shirt. Becker asked, “Haven’t you a room no more?”
“Of course. You think I’m a bum?”
“Why you carting all your stuff around with you?”
“I’m not living at the Waldorf. Stuff gets stolen.”
“You mean you can’t chance being locked out.” He sighed again. “I don’t know, kid, you once looked like money in the bank—a dozen years ago. If you hadn’t insisted on the Robinson fight…”
“Becker, cut it. I’ll be up there yet,” Tommy said, taking off his robe, trunks, and protector. His red hair was getting thin, there was a growing bald spot on the top of his head. He had hairy arms and legs but his chest was smooth, and there was a dried-up look to the flat white stomach, the narrow hips, skinny backside. Even the too sharply defined shoulder and back muscles seemed drawn. Cork’s thin one hundred and forty-six pounds reminded Becker of one of these medical drawings in a TV ad showing the various veins, muscles, and joints. As the fighter bent down to remove his shoes, Becker noticed the wedding ring tied to the laces. Annoyed, he said, “And how did that look, taking your ring into the fight? Told you before, never have to worry about anything being stolen in my club.”
“You should have seen the characters in here tonight. If there was a way of doing it, I’d have taken my suitcase into the ring.”
“That old wedding ring. If it was worth anything, you would have hocked it long ago. A cheap…”
Tommy straightened up, a fast movement that increased the pounding in his head. He held on to the table for a second. But his eyes narrowed and his face turned cruel and hard. Then he relaxed, said gently, “Bobby, you know better than to call it cheap. You really know.” He sat down to take off his ring shoes and socks, dropped the wedding ring on the table, atop the pile of money. Slipping on the wooden shower shoes and taking the towel, he clopped toward the coffin-like shower, calling out, “Watch that for me.”
“I have to go back up….”
“Only be a few minutes,” Tommy said, turning on the water.
Biting on his cigar holder, Becker stared at the wedding ring, silently cursed it. He heard steps in the hallway and turned to see Alvin Hammer stoop to walk through the dressing room door. Hammer was five inches over six feet tall and weighed less than one hundred and forty pounds. His clothes were casual and expensive, and heavy framed glasses gave his lean face an owlish look often considered intellectual. His nervous face still held a trace of an actor’s good looks despite his baggy eyes and receding hair, which was dyed black. (On TV he always wore a hairpiece, of course.) He was now smoking a handsome pipe and an amazingly deep, clear voice managed to come out of his skinny frame as he said, “My boys are all cleared away, Becker. How’s the kid?”
“Taking a shower. Watch his stuff, I have things to do upstairs.”
The announcer sat on the rubbing table. “He was completely tragic in there tonight. A magnificent display of… This all he gets?”
Al’s eyes counted the money under the ring, then looked over abruptly at Becker, who snapped, “Stop it, Al. Go peddle your shaving soap and cut the do-good act. I’m running a business here.”
“He would have been a famous champ if you hadn’t thrown him in with Robinson!”
“What do you know about it? Tommy wanted the fight.”
“I know he never recovered from that beating,” Al said, his voice clean and ringing.
Becker cleaned his cigar holder again and wrinkled his face as if about to spit. Then he remembered that in a fashion Alvin was his boss. He had so many bosses these days. Heading for the door he said, “I can remember when you screamed at him to go out, with his eye half open from a butt, to fill up a few minutes of open TV time! Leave me alone, Al, I have my own problems. Believe me.”
Alone in the dreary dressing room, Alvin stared at the pathetic pile of money, the wedding ring and enjoyed his pity. He glanced around the room, as if drinking in the horrible atmosphere. After many years as an unsuccessful actor and part-time spieler on sight-seeing buses, then a minor success on radio, Al had rung the bell as a TV fight announcer.
“Money-wise” he wasn’t big, but he made a fair salary and far more important, thoroughly enjoyed his work. Having been a sickly kid who grew too fast into a painfully thin man, Al was fascinated by muscles, by athletes, by men able to give and take punishment. He liked being “a part” of the fight game. “I indeed consider myself fortunate to play any role in this intense drama of courage and skill, in this age-old contest of man against man,” Alvin would say— and often. His open excitement and sincere admiration for pugs wasn’t cynical, as is the case of most sports writers, and a great deal of Alvin’s sincere feeling came through the mike, making him most effective with his listeners. Although some of his descriptions of movements and precise blows were entirely wrong, the average TV fan never knew the difference and at times Al’s vivid description sounded as if he were up there in the squared circle—as he undoubtedly was, in his mind.
One time on the air, talking about a hard gut wallop, Alvin had said, “Oh! Oh! Frank rips a terrible right deep into Brown’s stomach. Brown is clinching, his eyes rolling. Our mouth is desperately open, fighting for air. Now our stomach muscles grow numb, our legs go deadly tired. I feel as if I’m sinking into a numbing fog. Hold on! My heart cries out. Hold on for dear life!… Ah, now our nerves and reflexes respond, we shake off the lifeless feeling, energy and strength are flowing back into our trained muscles. The fog lifts from our brain and… There! Brown is fighting back like a wounded tiger….”
The sports writers razzed Al without mercy, but the fans like it, showered the stations with letters.
If Alvin’s blind worship of “courage” made him fail to understand the stupidity and commercialized brutality of the fight racket, he could feel and understand the tragedy, the violence. Now, remembering the beating the nineteen dollars represented, he was moved to tears.
Alvin, after two failures at marriage, only saw women out of need and was “married” to his job. This marriage worked for him. People on the fringe of sports often adopt an athlete (often not aware they are doing it), one they may feel close to for any one of a hundred different reasons. Al was very fond of Tommy. “The little fighting cock,” as he loved to call him (although not on the air where it might possibly be misconstrued) had once saved a show for Alvin. From that moment on he was Alvin’s favorite pug.
Tommy came out of the shower stall dripping wet, rubbing himself vigorously with the towel—the hotel name too faded to be legible. The cold shower had washed most of the dizziness and pain from his body. He waved and said, “Hello, Al. Sorry I stunk up your show. I couldn’t get started.”
“He was a strong youngster.”
“Muscle-bound dummy. In the old days I wouldn’t have let him carry my bag.”
“You would have cut him to ribbons with your left in a round,” Alvin said, although he’d never seen Tommy box before a year ago, when Cork had been way past his prime. Indignation shook his voice as he asked, “I thought you were paid sixty dollars for an emergency bout?”
“That’s the price,” Tommy said, powdering his crotch and between the toes. It often made him nervous the way Al stared at him. He sometimes wondered if the announcer was a queer.
“Then why these few dollars?”
“Well, fifteen bucks I owed Bobby. Six went for the seconds, and Bobby gets his one-third cut, like a manager, for getting me the bout,” Tommy explained as he put on his torn underwear.
Al banged the rubbing table, a tremendous thump. “The cheap bastard! Where does he come off taking a manager’s cut? He knows it’s against the law for a matchmaker to be a manager, too. I’ll have a word with him!”
Tommy looked up, surprised. “Look, Bobby gives me the breaks.”
“Ice in the wintertime!”
“Don’t forget, he used to be my manager,” Tommy said, slipping on socks and badly cracked shoes. “It isn’t easy for him to get me on the card. Plenty of mob managers are after Bobby to give their boys the cellar fight. Old Becker’s been a pal to me.”
“With a pal like him you don’t need enemies, as the joke goes.” Alvin put a hand in his pocket. “Irish, you need a-few bucks?”
“Naw, I’m into you for near a hundred now. This dough will last me until I get another bout.”
“You may not fight for weeks. Got any money beside this nineteen dollars?”
“Yeah!” Tommy fingered the change in his pocket as he buttoned his baggy pants.
“Irish,” Alvin began, hunting for the right words, “maybe you ought to… take a rest? I mean for a few months….”
“Listen, AL you don’t have to tell me I was pure lousy tonight. We all have our off-nights. Bobby says the commission wants to take away my license. I’m only thirty-two. Archie Moore and Jersey Joe, and old Fitz—they never hit the big time until they were forty. Things been rough for me, I haven’t been training right and…” Tommy almost said he hadn’t been eating most of the time, but somehow he couldn’t tell Al that. Al was the “press” and one always put up a front for the press. “You know I got the fastest left in the business. I have the experience. Hell, I’m no sixty-buck fighter. I made seven grand fighting Robinson. I ain’t got any doubts. You wait, with the luck of the Irish I’ll be up on top again, where I belong.”
“Of course, you’ll be a champ. I merely thought that if you had a rest, it might be what you need.”
Tommy thought, How dumb these reporters are! He slipped on his ring, pocketed the money, and quickly packed his old suitcase. He put on an old windbreaker under an older heavy coat. “Al, resting isn’t what I need. This was my first fight in nine weeks. I need more bouts. Hell, it costs to rest.”
“Suppose I give… lend you twenty-five dollars?”
Tommy shook his head. “Al what you can do is get me a part-time job, something which won’t interfere with my training but give me eating dough. I could work out evenings, like most pugs do now. Ought to be lots of things around a TV studio to do.”
“Well, I’ll ask.” Alvin couldn’t hide the doubt in his voice.
“Something where I’d get a workout at the same time. Like pushing chairs and stuff around, physical work.”
“Irish, all those jobs are highly unionized.”
“I’ll even be a porter or a messenger—just a couple hours a day,” Tommy said, putting on his cap, turning off the light. “Watch your head in the doorway, Al. I’d only need the job for a few weeks. If I hadn’t run out of steam I’d have flattened this rough kid, been on the way up. AL wasn’t it comical, the way he telegraphed his right?”
“He’s a clumsy oaf, should quit now, while he’s ahead,” Alvin said, his arm around Tommy’s shoulder. They walked up the wooden steps and into the dark arena, their Mutt and Jeff shadows dancing ahead of them. In the dim light the empty arena, filled with an unreal fog of stale smoke, always gave Al a nightmarish quality. They passed Becker in the box office with his bookkeeper. Alvin stopped at the main entrance. “I forgot my coat. Irish, if I should hear about a job—and I’ll try but can’t promise anything—how do I get in touch with you? Haven’t seen you around the bar lately.”
“Leave word with Bobby.”
“Or I’ll see you at the gym?”
“Well… eh… best you tell Bobby,” Tommy told him. He owed three months’ rent at the gym—fifteen dollars all told—hadn’t been around there in weeks. “Hey, Al, how did you like that talking ref? Must have been afraid to work, get his hands dirty. Talk, talk… I was busy enough with the kid without listening to a lecture.”
“He should work in England, where the referee is outside the ring and only gives voice commands,” Alvin said. “Okay, old cock, I’ll keep in touch. And, if things get too rugged, don’t hesitate to look me up for a few bucks.”
“Thanks,” Tommy said politely, thinking, Why the devil doesn’t he stop treating me like a bum? I’m Irish Cork, the welterweight contender!
Outside, it was a raw, cold night. Tommy started walking, needing food and a good hooker of whiskey, and not sure of the exact order of need. The cold air stung his battered face, cleared his head. Almost copying a hackneyed scene from a B movie, a flashy sport car, parked on the deserted street, sounded its horn. Tommy knew it wasn’t for him and continued to walk. He decided to get the drink first—only one— then head for a cheap cafeteria down around the skid-row area where he could put away a filling meal for about a buck.
Continuing the motion picture scene, the horn pierced the night again and a stocky young man in a well-fitting overcoat, wearing a sharp hat, crossed the sidewalk and stopped in front of Tommy. “You Irish Cork?”
“Sure.” In the dim light Tommy could make out the hard, handsome features, the thick shoulders.
“There’s a guy who wants to see you in the car. May have a good deal for you, Pops.” The voice was flat, casual, yet from the way the younger man was blocking him, Tommy had a fast feeling it was more of an order than an invitation.
“He wants to see me?” Tommy put his bag down so his mitts would be free, never taking his eyes off the other’s hands.
“That’s it. Kind of a fan of yours.”
Tommy chuckled. “Think he wants my autograph?”
“Why not ask him?” Jake lowered his voice to a supposedly confidential whisper. “Pops, this guy’s a fight nut And a rich one. Let’s go, huh?”
For a split second Irish hesitated. It wasn’t exactly fear. Tommy really believed he could lick any man in the world, including the heavyweight champ. Rather, it was a cautious curiosity. He vaguely wondered what this heavy-shouldered guy would do if he told him to go to hell; and what he could do himself, considering how weak and exhausted he was. Then he told himself, I’m thinking like a clown. What am I, a millionaire they’re trying to kidnap? And I’m too poor to be sued. They must mistake me for somebody else. But he called me by name? One thing, I sure don’t look like ready money.
Picking up his battered suitcase, Tommy followed the man to the car, deciding he’d see what this was all about but he’d be damned if he’d get in.
There was a plump man sitting on the front seat. He was bundled in an expensive coat. The features of the fleshy face were sloppy and the light from the dashboard showed a veined nose, wide mouth, and quick, clear eyes. Sticking out a gloved hand the man said, “I’m Arno Brewer. I’m thinking of managing you. You’ve already met Jake—Jake Watson, one of my fighters.”
“Manage me?” Tommy repeated, shaking hands carefully. “Why not? Want to talk this over on a drink?”
“I never touch the stuff. You didn’t see me fight tonight.”
“But I did. That’s when I decided I was interested in you. I know, you looked downright lousy in there. But you were obviously far out of shape. However I saw flashes of, your old form and… Sure you won’t have a few shots?”
No sir, I always keep in training:
“No point in discussing things tonight. I’m at the Southside Hotel. Suppose you drop up tomorrow and we talk about it then? You haven’t a manager, have you Irish?”
“No, not at the moment.”
“Fine. No worry about buying up the contract. Remember the….”
Tommy blinked. “You’d be willing to buy my contract, if I had one? No kidding?”
Arno said in the fast, nervous way he had of speaking, “You’ll find me a man of direct action. Once I make up my mind. I see you in there and I say to myself, ‘This guy has class. And he’s the last of the Irish pugs.’ I’m part Irish myself, way back on my father’s side. You be at my hotel in the morning. Not before noon, like my sleep. I’ll not only manage you but see you train right and eat regularly.”
“Mr. Brewer isn’t in this for money, Pops,” Jake put in. “Like I told you, he’s a fan, and this is a side line for him. A… eh…”
“Hobby,” Arno added. “Will I see you in the morning?”
Jake walked around the car, got behind the wheel. As he drove off Arno called out, “Brewer is my name. Southside Hotel at noon. Don’t forget, Tommy.”
Tommy nodded and shut his eyes. He opened them to see the car turn the corner, so it was all real. He spun around and started walking west. This unbelievable news called for a change in plans. He must tell May his good luck, after he stopped for a drink.
Stopping for a light, Jake asked, “We going to see some broads tonight?”
“You can,” Arno said. “I’m too old for so much action. And this is your last time until we settle with Cork.”
“He isn’t in the bag yet,” Jake said, a sort of grant. “We should have taken him with us. Might not show tomorrow.”
“He will. I don’t understand it myself but some guys go for fighting as if it was dope.” Arno glanced at Jake. “Like you would be carrying a broken-down suitcase out of some fight club now—if I hadn’t wised you up.”
The exchange diner was open twenty-four hours a day but at noon and 6:00 p.m. when restaurants are usually busy, they were lucky to sell more than a few cups of Java. However, from ten in the evening to late morning they did a good business. The diner, actually a dining car on a brick foundation, stood at the edge of the wholesale produce market area and was patronized by truck drivers and their helpers, merchants, and slaughter house and produce workers. Four waitresses worked around the clock, for tips and meals only. The tips were hardly anything to shout about and May Cork was the only waitress who’d stayed there over a year.
Dressed in a simple blue smock and white apron, she was usually called “Old May” by the steady customers, although she was only twenty-nine. May’s gray and auburn hair was worn in a tight bun and her face was pale and delicate, as if she had never seen the sun. Her meek eyes were large, the mouth thin. The bosses liked May because she was a steady worker, never horsed around with the male customers—although at the end of her eight-hour shift she often looked as if she was about to pass out. Other waitresses came and went—often with a tracker headed back toward Florida, or for New York City. Since she was plain looking and flat-chested, May had established some sort of record in the diner: during all the months she had worked there nobody had made a pass at her.
Her boss (actually he was one of three partners) also liked May being religious, the medals she wore around her thin neck, the fact she went to church regularly. May had worked on his shift ever since she started there. He was a middle-aged man named Frederick Morris III, a direct descendant of a Pilgrim, now known only as “Butch” and rightly so since he had been a ship’s butcher, bought and cut most of the meat used in the diner.
At ten forty-five that night, the afternoon waitress, a blonde named Bertha who always seemed about to serve up her fat bosom whenever she bent over to place a plate before a customer, dropped in for a free cup of coffee. She told May, “Well, honey, I’m set. Got a letter from my sister in Fresno. You know, the one who married the guy with the nut ranch out there? She’s going to open that roadside stand I told you about, and they want me to help out. Who knows, maybe I’ll meet a decent pair of pants in California. Anyway, they say the weather is nice and for the next three months my lucky stars are bright in the sky, so I’ll see which way things bounce. Be something working in the sun. I’ve had it in this damn cold city.”
“When are you leaving?” May asked anxiously.
“Soon as they finish building the stand, in about a month. Her husband is one of these loudmouths who knows everything, but I guess I’ll be able to take him. And they have a real house. And two kids. Ill like that. Funny, Betty— that’s my sister—never had no looks. She was sort of the ugly duckling of us four babes, yet she made out the best. Never thought I’d be asking her for…”
“Bertha, can I get your apartment?” May cut in.
“Sure. That’s what I come to tell you.”
May reached across the counter and squeezed the blonde’s cigarette-stained hand. “Oh, Bertha, you honestly mean it?”
“Didn’t I always say if I gave up the joint, it was yours? I even spoke to the agent today. No fifteen per cent raise. Only been seven months since I gave the bastard an increase, so he ain’t entitled to one now. Don’t let him fast talk you into paying a cent more than the forty-eight dollars a month.”
“Yes, yes, indeed! Oh Bertha, you’re so sweet! You’ve no idea what this means to me. An apartment of my own again!”
“It ain’t no hell, you seen it. Room, kitchenette, and the can. You remember how I got it fixed up?”
“Yes. Oh, Bertha, you can’t know what this means to me.”
“May, stop bubbling and listen. The studio couch alone cost me two hundred bucks. And there’s a couple chairs and the table, curtains, pots, and dishes. I’m taking the TV with me but it don’t pay to ship the rest of the stuff. I figure a hundred and fifty bucks is a fair price to ask. Okay?”
“Fair, very fair,” May said, her face flushed with excitement “Bertha, I’ll mention you in my prayers. I haven’t got the money now, you understand, but in a month’s time I’ll get it.”
“With what these big-hearted slobs leave you? You’re the thrifty type, ain’tcha got nothing put by?”
“Less than twenty dollars. But don’t worry, I’ll see my husband. This is what I’ve been waiting for. I’ll see Thomas and within a month, we’ll be able to pay you.”
Bertha finished her coffee, lit a cigarette as she stood up. Reaching inside her dress top to adjust her bra straps, Bertha okayed herself in the mirror behind the counter, said, “Don’t keep me waiting too long, May. I’m doing you a favor and counting on that dough to take me to Fresno in style; you know?” Bertha glanced at the few customers, started toward the door, then stopped to ask, “Didn’t you once tell me your old man was a leatherpusher? Tommy Cork?”
“Irish Tommy Cork.”
“I seen him on TV just now. What a beating he took.”
May’s thin face paled. Looking up at the greasy ceiling of the diner for a fast second, she said, “Maybe this is all God’s will. Even the beating will work in with my plans.” Then she added, almost fiercely, “Tommy was a good boxer, real famous—once. I have clippings in my room I can show you.”
“Honey, I believe you. He’s your old man, not mine. Look, I got a couple runs to make. So it’s a deal now, about the furniture?”
“Absolutely. God bless you, Bertha.”
After the blonde left May went about her work in a small daze, thinking how she could get in touch with Tommy. Tomorrow she’d go over to the gym, somebody there would know where to reach him. Or maybe that bar he mentioned, if she could recall the name. She called over to Butch, “Is that job still open at Mac’s place?”
“I overheard him telling you last night he needs a dishwasher-porter. I… I may know somebody who will want it.”
“That job will always be open,” Butch said. “Who but a wino will work for twenty bucks a week and grub? Even a lush only holds it for a week or two. Mac’s going to get himself in a jam with the labor commission.”
“Still, it might be a start, for the right man,” May said, turning to wait on a customer.
At midnight the diner was fairly busy as many of the market men came in for “lunch.” At a quarter to one May was astonished to see Tommy walk in. She was cleaning the counter and motioned for him to take a stool at the far end. Talking thickly, due to his big lip and a few ryes, Tommy said, “May, honey, I have great news! Seems like I’m getting that break, at last. Be like old times soon.”
“Oh, Tommy, Tommy, this is a miracle,” she said, stroking his puffed face. “I have such fine news, tool The truth is, I was thinking all night of how I could get in touch with you. Does your face hurt much?”
“Pay my puss no mind, I had an off-night. But all that is changing, so is my luck. I said to myself I’ll eat here and tell you the big news. I got a…”
“Good news, indeed! Eat while I talk to you. Are you hungry?”
“I’m starved, honey.”
“I’ll fix you a bowl of thick soup and the hamburger is good, and fresh. With plenty of french fries, the way you always loved them. Then I’ll… No, I’ll burst if I don’t tell you the news now! Tommy, we can be together again. I’ve found us an apartment!”
Butch, who was busy chewing a toothpick behind the cash register, glanced at May and the little man with the bruised face and battered suitcase, the animated way they were talking. He started over to see if May was having any trouble with this red-headed bum, when she raced down the raised duckboards behind the counter, told him, “That’s my husband there. Fred, will you make him a very special thick hamburger, no onions, but lots of french fries? I can’t get over it, Tommy showing up just when I was thinking about him!” May’s sudden coloring, her excited eyes, startled Butch: she almost looked youthful.
May beamed at Tommy as he ate his soup—taken from the bottom of the pot so it was thick with meat and vegetables—and went through several rolls. She was especially happy to see he was still wearing his wedding ring. Butch even waited on a customer to give May time to be with Tommy. Butch was puzzled. While he vaguely knew she sometimes spoke of a husband, it was hard to imagine her falling for this hard-faced bum, a lush who looked as if he’d just come from a street brawl, not a gentle, religious woman like May.
Waiting for his hamburger, Tommy began, “May, it was like a dream. A rich guy…”
“No, when you’re finished we’ll talk. Tommy, what news, what sweet news!”
He winked. “Like you when you’re excited, May. Makes you look even prettier than usual.”
“Now stop that blarney,” she said, pleased. “Does your lip hurt?”
“Naw. I was in against some strong, lucky kid who… Maybe that’s over now, all these quickie bouts.”
“Yes, thank God it’s over, darling,” May said as Butch called out the hamburger was ready.
Tommy was barely able to put the thick meat patty away and when May said, “The pies are so-so but the bread pudding is made here and good…” He held up a hand, told her, “Hon, I’m stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey now. It was a swell feed but I’ve had all I can eat.” Tommy pulled out a five dollar bill. “Here—and keep the change. I always tip beautiful waitresses big.”
“Nonsense. I… Tom, have you money?”
“This and a ten spot. But that’s all going to change. May, I’m going to take you out of this stool joint, no more working for you. See, I got a new manager interested in me. A rich cat. Welters are all bums today, and with him staking me, and he has to have an in, why I’ll be on top of…”
“Thomas Cork, you mean you’re going to continue fighting?”
He blinked. “May, this is my break. Sure I’m going to fight, but for folding dough.”
“I thought… you said… it was over? I heard you took a bad licking tonight. Tom, you’re no longer a kid. I thought you were done with fighting.”
“What am I telling you except about this new manager I’m to see tomorrow? He don’t sound like a false alarm, and with him backing me, why…”
“Tom, listen to me. One of the girls here is going to California in a month. She has an apartment. It isn’t much, one room really, but it’s a real apartment. The rent isn’t high and she’s only asking a hundred and fifty dollars for the furniture. Of course it isn’t worth that, but for these days it’s a bargain. We have a month to raise the hundred and fifty.”
“Peanuts. One semi-final and I’ll have enough to…”
“No! I don’t want you to fight. And I don’t want any more of your big empty talk either. Tom, you’re done as a fighter, we both know it. Look at you, a kid beating you up. I don’t want you ending up hurt or crazy, going blind.”
“May, that’s no way to talk. I ain’t bragging, but you know how good I am when I’m right.”
May nodded. “You were good in the ring, the best. But that’s yesterday, today prelim kids are cutting you up. Maybe I mined all that for you, but…”
“Don’t ever think that way, May. It wasn’t you or…”
“I don’t want to discuss it. That’s all yesterday. Tom, I’ve been thinking a lot about us. When you’re lonely you think. My sickness, the army, you away training so much, we never had our chance at happiness, really being man and wife. You know what’s the key to everything? A home—an apartment! We got to have the same roof over our heads before we can start a thing. I’m sick to death of rooms, sharing a bath, keeping food on the window sill, using somebody else’s furniture. We have to have a place of our own, an apartment that’s ours, where we can live like normal humans. A room is only a cage, and the street our living room. But with a real apartment, where we can cook and live and… God has been gracious to us. We can have Bertha’s apartment, if we can raise the hundred and fifty within a month. We must save about forty dollars a week. Now I usually make about thirty-five dollars in tips here. I’m paying eight for a room, so I can hustle together about twenty-five dollars a week. I know where you can get a dishwashing job. It don’t pay much, only twenty dollars a week with meals. But it’s a start.”
“May, baby, I was once a contender for the title. I’m a pug with the best left hand in the business, not a dishwasher.”
“For once you’ll do what I say, and I won’t hear any more talk about fighting! I can’t stand it. All the worry and fear. Tom, Tom, don’t you understand, this apartment is a gift from Heaven, our last chance! Once we get the hundred and fifty up, then with the both of us working, we can easily pay the rent, in time put a little aside. We’ll be together, have some… security. But you have to forget the ring. I can’t carry this alone. You have to get a job!”
“You’re playing us short, May. I want nothing more than to be with you. But twenty lousy bucks for washing some stinking dishes. May, I once fought Robinson. You know what the TV cut is on a main event in Bobby’s club? At least a grand, after my purse is pieced off. I haven’t got many years left to grab that kind of dough.”
“Tom, you haven’t got any time left, for boxing. All I ask is you get a job, like any other husband does.”
“Sure, people are dying to give me work. I’ll tell you something, before I got this break tonight I was ready to quit. I was so broke I did look for a job. Once glance at my face and they said no dice. Or they asked what my “work background” was—and just to be a lousy messenger. The moment I said I’d been a pug, you’d think I’d said thug. I even got a Social Security card so I could deliver telephone books for a few days. Over the weekends I deliver for a liquor store, pull down a few bucks in tips. Okay, that’s only marking time, temporary. I’m Irish Tommy Cork, and I don’t settle for being a greaseball dish jockey the rest of my life!”
“I don’t want you to be one for the rest of your life either, but until we’re settled, at least get the apartment, we need money coming in every week, money we can count on. Tom, keep the liquor store job, too. In a year, you can look around, or maybe become a counterman, or short-order cook or…”
“May, I can’t lay off a year from the ring. I’d be…”
“Can’t you forget boxing? Can’t you understand what a home of our own will mean? The way we’ve been… existing… one miserable room after the other, the both of us living as strangers in a lonely world. It was living in rooms that made us fight and separate. Tommy, we’re no longer kids. We don’t have too much time left to be… us. What I’m trying to say is, we have to think of our happiness not of the ring, or of anything else. We have to start living.”
“Don’t you think I want that? What you think I’m fighting for?”
“I suppose you are trying, in your own way, but… Oh, Tom, I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but we do have to act now, we don’t find apartments we can afford every month. That’s why you must take this job. Darling, I feel this is our last chance to live as we should. We’ve been apart so long that… that if we don’t take this apartment… well, life is closing the door on us.”
“May, don’t put it like that. We’re not finished.”
“How else should I say it? That’s how I feel. We must take the apartment.”
“If a guy who should have been—and will be—a big money fighter has to settle for being a lousy dishwasher, God might as well slam that door on me right now!”
May reached across the counter and slapped his braised cheek as she said, “It’s blasphemy to talk of suicide, Thomas Cork!”
He stood up. Butch was walking slowly toward them behind the counter. Tommy said, “I seem to be wide open for a right tonight. Guess you might as well take your turn. May, I rushed here to tell you about how you’ll be able to stop working. Live in a real apartment, maybe a hotel suite, have people waiting on you, for a change. For two years I been trying to get any kind of manager backing me. Now when I finally get this rich buff, you want me to give it up. That don’t make sense, May.”
“God forgive me for striking you,” May said, sobbing. “You’re talking dreams, Tom. What I’m saying is real, what we have to do now.”
“May, listen to me. If I can have one good year in the ring, one or two big paydays, I’ll retire with ten or twenty grand in my kick. You’re right, it is something I have to do now. I can’t afford to wait even a week. Next time you see me I’ll have a pocketful of dough, really set us up.”
Shaking her head, May covered her face with her hands and wept softly.
“It will come true this time, May, it has to—the luck of the Irish and this is the last throw of the dice. It’s now or never for me, my last break.” Tommy wheeled around, saw Butch watching them, snarled, “What you want?”
“No trouble in here is what I want,” Butch said gently, his hands fondling a large soda bottle wrapped in a towel. He’d bounced plenty of men in his time—big men, even battled a few stick-up jaspers—but the look in Tommy’s eyes made him uneasy. “I don’t want you hitting her, in here.”
“I never struck May in my life. There’s a fin on the counter, take out what I owe and give her the rest. And don’t come around the counter or you’ll get hurt.”
Tommy grabbed his suitcase, walked out fast.
He was dreaming. In the stuffy darkness of his narrow room it was impossible to see the smile on Tommy’s rough face. He was seeing May when she was sixteen—the pretty, wistful face under the soft auburn hair, her body blossoming with delicate curves. He was reliving a scene on the stoop of the tenement. May’s eyes were big with delight as she fondled the wrist watch he’d given her. Tommy, fighting amateur and bootleg pro bouts then, had won the match for flattening some wild kid in an uptown club in the first round. It was a night for firsts—the first watch May ever owned, the first any neighborhood girl had, and the first time she let him put his arm around her, right out on the stoop. May’s hand wags on his back, gently stroking him… gently….
Arno was shaking Tommy, standing over the cot, careful not to touch the empty pint wine bottles on the floor. On a string hung across the room Tommy’s ring togs were drying. Drunk or sober he always washed and took good care of his ring clothes. Jake was near the closed door, face screwed up with the smell of the room.
Tommy opened his eyes, tried to bring the darkness into focus. He sat up, holding his head with one hand, reached over with his left to snap on the one light. (In the old days when this had been the maid’s room in the ancient apartment house, it wasn’t thought necessary to give a servant more than one light. A window was out of the question.) Tommy’s bloodshot eyes hit Arno’s good overcoat,, traveled up to the plump face.
“How did you find me?”
From the door, Jake asked, “What makes you think you’re hard to find, Pops?”
Tommy ran his tongue around his mouth, flexed his arms —he was sleeping in his heavy underwear—and belched loudly. “What time is it, Mr. Brewer?” Except for the big head he felt okay.
“A little after six p.m.” Arno daintily touched one of the dead soldiers on the floor with his shoe, said softly, “I see why you didn’t call at my hotel.”
“Don’t get the wrong idea,” Tommy said, his brains rusty as he tried to think straight. “I’m not a rumdum. I really meant to be at your hotel. But I had a… a… run-in with my wife, tried to lose myself in a bottle. I guess you’re sour on me?”
Jake said, “Let’s get out of here before I puke. I’d open the door but it smells worse in the hallway.”
Without turning his head, Arno said, “Shut up.” Brushing off a corner of the cot, he sat on the gray sheet. “I don’t give up on things easily, Tommy. You ought to move out of this fleabag.”
Tommy split the soggy quiet of the room with another long belch. “Yeah? With what? I’m not living here out of choice, Mr. Brewer.”
Arno took out a tooled leather cigarette case, offered the pug one. When Tommy told him he didn’t smoke, Arno lit a cigarette, blew out a thick cloud of smoke as if fumigating the room, said, “That’s good. You certainly know more about training than I do. I don’t mind you hitting the bottle, but not too often. If I take you on I expect you to be in shape—when I need you. Otherwise drinking is your own business.”
“I never touch the stuff,” Tommy mumbled. “It was the argument with my wife. She wants me to quit fighting.”
“That what you want, Irish?”
“All right. As I told you last night, I have money, so managing fighters is merely a hobby with me. Sign with me and I’ll pay your room and board, buy you some clothes, give you modest spending coin. But don’t think I’m a sucker; it will be a loan. I’ll get it back from your purses.”
“Know what I took down last night? Nineteen bucks!”
Arno shrugged. “Since it’s my money and my hobby, let me worry about it. When you fight for me, you’ll be well paid.” He pulled a folded contract from his pocket, then counted out two hundred dollars—an imposing pile of five-dollar bills. “I want you to sign this, after you read it. Legally I won’t be your manager of record, for reasons I’ll explain some other time. But this states that I’m staking you, buying a sort of interest in your career. You agree to give me twenty per cent of your purses until the money I loan you is paid. It’s legal. Show it to a lawyer, if you wish. Take this money and pay your rent here, buy a suit, and be at my hotel, the Southside, at nine in the morning. We’re leaving to train in the country for a few weeks. Buying that?”
“Yes sir! Listen, Mr. Brewer, you’ll see I still got the stuff, the fastest left in the racket.”
Jake, standing by the door, laughed silently.
Arno got to his feet, knocked over one of the empty bottles. “Lay off the booze, for now. Don’t let me down.”
“Don’t you worry, Mr….”
“Cut the mister line. Call me Arno.”
“Don’t you worry, Arno, I’ll be on the ball,” Tommy said, getting out of bed, a comical little man in crumpled and stained underwear.
“We don’t worry, Pops.” Jake’s voice managed to sound sharp and cold in the stale air of the tiny room.
“Let’s make that ten a.m. tomorrow,” Arno said, walking toward the door, ducking under the string on which Tommy’s trunks were drying. “Give you time to buy some clothes. When we return to town you’ll be staying at the hotel. I want you to look like a coming champ. Meantime, keep this quiet. I’ll explain that later, too. Sign the contract, get yourself straight. I don’t want a cent of my money spent on booze. We understand each other?”
“You bet. You can trust me, Arno. I’ll be at the Southside tomorrow, ten o’clock.”
“Sharp,” Jake said, opening the door for Arno.
Outside in the hallway Jake whispered, “You shouldn’t have given him so much dough. He’ll drink himself stiff.”
“Don’t talk loud,” Arno said. “Sure he’ll drink. Is that bad? Main thing, he took the dough, he’s into us.”
“But he hasn’t signed the contract yet?”
“Leave the thinking to me. He’ll sign.”
“But we’re running low on dough? Two hundred…”
“Let me handle this end, you just start training. Run your legs off instead of your dumb mouth. There’s an East Indian restaurant I want to try—once I get the stink of this dump out of my chest.”
Tommy got out his shower shoes, stuffed the money inside his underwear, and clopped down the hallway to the John. Returning to his room he locked the door, put the one chair against it, and counted the money. Then he put the bills in his underwear again and stretched out, slept for awhile.
He awoke an hour later and counted the money once more. It was still two hundred bucks. It wasn’t a dream. For a split second he considered giving May a hundred and fifty for the apartment she wanted so badly, but dismissed the idea just as quickly. No point in risking Arno getting sore at him. He’d already goofed. Beside, within a couple of months he’d buy May a regular house if she wanted it.
He dressed and packed all his stuff, including the damp ring togs. It didn’t take more than a few moments. Downstairs he paid the two week’s rent he was behind, told the astonished and unshaven elderly man behind the desk he was moving. The cold night air took all the wine-sleep out of his head. He stopped at a laundry to leave his dirty clothes, opening the battered suitcase on the counter. The old woman running the shop insisted on a dollar deposit and Tommy flashed his roll, to spite her. He stopped for a fast cup of coffee and a buttered roll. The wall clock said it was twenty after seven, and he raced across town to a pawn shop which closed at eight. Here he purchased a decent suitcase for fifteen dollars and a small leather bag for six, and took out a suit and overcoat he’d put in pawn during the summer—as a means of safe storage. It cost him thirty-two dollars to redeem the clothes. He carefully packed all his things into the new bag, except the gym clothing, which he placed in the smaller bag.
Once outside, Tommy shoved his old suitcase into a comer trash basket, took a bus uptown to a shop near the gym where he bought new boxing shoes, socks, underwear, shirts, and a pair of cheap black dress shoes. He dropped into a coffeepot for supper, picked up a paper and put two dollars on a horse called Green Face running in the nightly trotter races. He had exactly ninety-eight dollars left, including two dollars from the nineteen Becker had paid him.
Tommy mailed May a ten spot and took a two dollar room at a Turkish bath. He sweated the last of the wine out in the steam room, swam in the ice water pool, left a call for eight in the morning, and fell into a happy sleep.
He was up before seven, took another swim, shaved, and dressed in his new clothes. The suit and coat were practically new, although he’d bought them months before. On the spur of a drunken Saint Patrick’s-Day moment, Tommy had put a couple dollars on an impossible long shot named Loud Bean. (He’d thought it read Green.) When he sobered up, Tommy found he’d purchased the suit and overcoat. He had to hock them within the month.
After a big breakfast he walked over to the Southside, a modest, first-rate hotel, phoned, and went up to the room Arno was sharing with Jake. Tommy looked so good Arno stared at him with dismay. The men were dressing and after they packed their bags, they all went down to the car. Arno and Jake had breakfast while Tommy sat in the car. He remembered the contract, glanced through it and decided it was okay, signed it. He felt swell; the good clothes, the contract, and sitting in a flashy auto.
Jake took the wheel and after stopping while Arno shopped for the cans of Chinese food and special nuts and candies he was fond of, they left the city, driving north. Tommy sat up front while Arno dozed in the back seat or nibbled tiny bits of ginger. The only time Arno talked during the two-hour ride was to say, “Glad you laid off the rotgut, Tommy. You look sharp.”
“Told you I wasn’t a lush. You’ll see, I still got it. My legs aren’t too bad, I’m not a bleeder, and my left is as fast as ever.” He went through the motions of breathing deeply. “Air smells sweet. You know, I haven’t been to a training camp in years—since the time I trained for Robinson.”
Jake asked, surprised, “You was in with Sugar Ray?”
Tommy was just as startled. Everybody in the fight game knew that. “Sure. I was TKO’d in the eighth.” As an afterthought he added a moment later. “I was out-boxing him most of the way, was ahead on points. But he had too much experience for me. One punch took me out.”
“Soon as I saw you the other night,” Arno said, “despite the pasting you were taking, I told myself this fellow has the makings of a great fighter. You still have time to make it.”
“You bet,” Tommy said happily.
They drove to an old-time health resort which had a few customers during the summer. Now it was empty and the owner in Florida, but he had arranged for a local couple to keep the place open, cook and clean. The big house impressed Tommy, as did the barn with its old ring, heavy and light bags. All of it was set on the side of a small mountain, with a full view of the valley and a river covered with ice.
Tommy had a room of his own and while he was unpacking Jake came in. “Arno wants us to do some light sparring, before lunch. Tomorrow we start real training.”
“Sure. You done much fighting?”
“Naw, mostly amateurs—out West,” Jake said, talking in his hard clipped manner, as if cutting off each word with a razor.
“What’s the deal with Arno?”
“What do you mean? What deal?” Jake asked slowly.
“What goes with him? I never saw a manager lay out dough like this. Cost a bundle to rent this set-up.”
“No deal. The guy is loaded and wants to be a fight manager. Anything wrong in that?”
“I’m all for it. What’s he do for pork chops?”
“I never asked. Think he’s retired, had a string of vending machines. What diff does it make?”
“Pops, all we got to do is train regularly. Arno plans to build us up slowly. Mostly we’ll fight in small out-of-town clubs and… He wants the contract. You sign it?”
“Let me have it.”
“You managing me, too?” Tommy asked, pulling the contract from his pocket, tossing it on the bed.
“He told me to get it,” Jake said simply, picking it up and walking out of the room.
Tommy hung up the rest of his things, humming a pop tune, thinking, Jake isn’t over-bright. Looks about twenty-three, twenty-four, should have been out of the amateurs long ago, if he’s any good. He looks like a fighter, though, even if he knows from nothing. Never heard of me being in there with Robinson I All this talk about boxing in small clubs. What clubs are left? Hell, outside the Golden Gloves, not even amateur cards around. But if Arno is some retired business cat wanting to play at being a manager, I’ll go along. Give me a chance to get back in shape.
Tommy took his ring things into the barn. Everything was neat and well-kept, but terribly old. Even the framed pictures on the walls were of fighters who’d been active before Tommy was born. The barn was unheated and Tommy undressed quickly. He didn’t have any sweat pants and didn’t want to wear his long underwear. He bandaged his hands and began working on the light bag to keep warm.
Wearing a heavy white turtleneck sweater under his overcoat and a ridiculous red beret, Arno walked in followed by Jake lugging a duffle bag. He took out his ring equipment and Tommy was impressed. His ring things were the best. Tommy, working on the bag, watched Jake undress and put on a sweat suit. Jake stripped big. Although a one hundred forty-five pounder he had the thick shoulders of a heavyweight, a thin waist, and sturdy legs. Tommy thought, He’s built like LaMotta. Too much muscle, though. Probably a wild slugger who went over big in a hick amateur tournament.
After Jake warmed up by skipping rope, he and Tommy laced on heavy gloves and headguards. Sitting at the ringside, smoking an aromatic cigarette, Arno called up, “Want you boys to go about three rounds. Tommy, you tell me later what Jake does wrong.”
The moment Arno reached over and rang the bell Tommy realized there was little Jake did wrong. He was an excellent boxer with very fast hands and sure footwork. His defense was good and his left jab fast as Tommy’s. He was tremendously strong and it was only at infighting, the little tricks of being up a man, feinting with his feet, spinning, that Tommy’s greater experience showed.
When the round ended, Tommy walked around the ring slowly while Jake lounged against the ropes, breathing too hard. Tommy studied Jake’s vaselined face, the lack of scars, nothing except the thickened nose and lean hard cast of his face as evidence he’d been in many rings. Tommy thought, One thing, he never learned all he knows in the amateurs. He’s ring-wise, moves as gracefully as Conn used to. Must be something wrong. Probably hasn’t a punch. Those big muscles don’t mean a thing.
In the next round Tommy showed his class by crossing his right over Jake’s left hook, slamming him in the gut. Jake clinched for a second to get his wind back. Jake tried another left and although Tommy was pulling back from the punch and it landed on the side of his headguard, it shook him. There was no doubting the wallop Jake packed in his left. In the middle of the round, Tommy decided to show off for Arno, suddenly switched to a southpaw stance. A short, whistling right landed flush on the side of Tommy’s chin. He fell to the patched canvas—out cold.
Jake leaned against the ropes, grinned down at Arno; his white mouthpiece making the smile almost grotesque. Arno had jumped to his feet, anger on his fat face. Jake spit the mouthpiece into a gloved hand, said, “That does it. He’s our boy.”
“Shut your damn face, you fool!” Arno said, climbing into the ring with difficulty, kneeling beside Tommy to remove his mouthpiece. “Think he heard you?”
“Come on, look at him. All he’s hearing is the birdies. I was just testing.”
“He looks dead now, you idiot!”
“Leave him alone, he’ll come around in a few minutes. Help me get his gloves off.”
When Tommy opened his eyes, he found himself propped on a ring stool, head resting on the faded padding of the ring corner ropes. Jake was banging away at the heavy bag, granting with pleasure each time his gloved fists slammed into the long bag. Arno was pressing a sponge full of snow and cold water to Tommy’s face, held another at the back of his neck, watching the fighter’s pale face with anxious eyes.
Tommy blinked, shook his head, tried to sit up. Arno held him back. “Easy now. Sit still.”
The buzzing deep in Tommy’s head dropped to a dull little roar, then died. His eyes were out of focus. After a moment, Tommy tried to push the cold sponge from his forehead, muttered, “Did… he… cool me?”
Now clarity and steady strength rushed into Tommy. He pushed Arno aside and stood. “Let me walk around. I’ll be okay.”
“Sit down and rest,” Arno said, pulling a flask from his hip pocket. “I have some good brandy here.”
Tommy shook his arms, as if trying to shake the gloves off, then sat down and shook his head. He gave Arno a sad smile. “I guess this sours you on me. Honest, this is the second time I’ve been clean-kayoed in my life. I’ve had fights stopped because I was out of shape but… Jeez, your boy can hit. With training gloves on, too!”
“I’m not soured on you. I…”
“You mean our deal is still on?”
“Of course. I know Jake can hit. Listen, you take a shower and get dressed. I’ll be waiting for you up at the house. We need to have a talk. It’s time I told you my plans.”
“Anything you say, Mr…. Arno.”
Arno walked down the few ring steps as if he was on a tightrope a mile high, took a belt of brandy. Tommy shadow-boxed for a few minutes, then jumped over the ropes to the ring apron, then to the floor. The jar when he landed completely cleared his head, although he still felt weak.
He walked over to Jake, watched him slug the heavy bag for a few seconds, then held out his gloved hands. Jake pulled his punching-bag gloves off, untied Tommy’s heavy training gloves. “Sorry, Pops. I clipped you with a lucky one. You walked into my right.”
“It happens. You have a lot of stuff. Jake. A barrel full.”
“Thanks. Guess I’ll go another round, then knock it off.”
After a shower, Tommy felt fine—almost. He ran up to the house and found Arno watching a Western on the small screen TV in the old living room. Arno had a bottle of Scotch and glasses, motioned for Tommy to take a glass. When Tommy hesitated, Arno poured him a big hooker, said, “Come on, it will relax you. Sit down.”
Tommy sipped the drink, although he never liked Scotch, told Arno, “You got a hell of a fine boxer in Jake.”
Arno motioned for him to keep his voice low, pointing toward the kitchen where the woman was making lunch. He whispered, “I know what I have in Jake.”
“I’ve been around, Arno. I’ve seen all the good welters, boxed with most of them. I’ve sparred with Cerdan, Graham, Olson, and battled Sugar Ray. Jake is not only a sharp boxer, but he’s probably the hardest puncher I ever saw.”
Watching the TV Western out of the comer of his eye, Arno nodded, pleased. “Jake is not only very good but, what’s even better, nobody knows about him. I’ve been bringing him along quietly. I’m capitalizing on the fact TV has killed the smaller clubs. In the old days I couldn’t keep a Jake a secret. Now—I’m not going to cut in any of the fight mob, either. Same goes for you. When I manage a fighter, or any other business, it has to be all mine.”
The Scotch filled Tommy with a nice warmth. “Jake can take any welter around—Jordan, Akins. I’d bet on him taking most of the middleweights, too—Basilio, Fullmer, Webb.”
Arno nodded again, filled Tommy’s glass. “I know that. When I finally spring Jake, it’s going to be so big, so sensational the fight mob will have to let me in, on my own terms. I’m a gambler, and believe me, when Jake pops, I’ll also make a betting killing.”
“That’s playing it smart,” Tommy said, a little puzzled. “But how are you going to get Jake ‘in’?”
“The reason I’m taking you on. Tommy, you’re my key. You have the name. You train right, start getting a few bouts here and there. You’ll have to piece yourself off to get the fights, but that’s okay. That’s my edge on the fight mob, money isn’t important to me. This is also why I’m not your manager—on paper. Now, soon as you get to be a contender again, you’ll agree to fight an unknown, take what seems like a soft touch.”
Arno beamed. “You know Jake can take you, don’t you, Tommy?”
“Well, I’m not in shape and he caught me trying to be cute. I… You want me to take a dive?”
“Would you do business?”
Tommy finished his drink and laughed. “Arno, I been a pro pug for about fifteen years. Pro means fighting for one thing—dough. I’ve gone into rings sick, hungry, and once with a busted hand. The glory bit has worn thin for me.”
Arno reached for the bottle but Tommy shook his head. Arno showed his strong even teeth in a grin, turned the TV down as the commercial came on. “I knew you were a smart cookie the moment I saw you, Cork. I admire a man like myself, who faces up to the facts of life, not the dreams. You won’t regret it. I figure if you go into the tank, especially on TV, why, then they can’t freeze us out. The fans all across the country will demand Jake fight the champion. I’ll be in the driver’s seat. Also, I have a couple of new angles to show the fight mobsters, that I’ll tell you—in time. Once Jake is champ, then we call the tune, and you get all the big paydays you want. Jake might even take a fall for you, let you hold the crown for a while. You buying?”
“All the way,” Tommy said, holding out his hand.
Arno shook it. “Let’s drink on that.”
“I’ve had enough,” Tommy said, only because too much Scotch made him sick. “Hey, when they going to have chow ready?”
“One thing we have to get squared away on—nobody is to know of this except us two. Not even Jake. I’ll let him in on things later, when he has to know. But you must see that if anybody else knows, it queers our whole set-up.”
“Don’t worry about me, I can be speechless when necessary. How soon do I start fighting?”
“When you’re in shape. Like I told you, you’re the key to the whole works. Take your time, you have to be right. Perhaps in a month or two.” Arno took out his wallet. “In the meantime, as per our agreement, I’ll pay your room and board, give you twenty-five a week.” He handed Tommy two tens and a five. “I’m strictly a businessman, I’ll keep track of what I loan you, start taking it from your first large purse. Okay?”
“I wouldn’t want it no other way.”
The woman in the kitchen called out she was ready to put food on the table. Arno asked Tommy, “Will you go down to the barn and get Jake?”
Arno winked, put a fat finger on his lips. As Tommy left the room, Arno turned up the TV to catch the end of the cowboy show, took a fast swig from the brandy flask in his pocket. He thought, I could sell the simple bastard the popcorn concession on the moon. Always amazes me, the sillier the line, the harder some mark falls. But a punchy fighter—hardly a workout for me.
Walt Steiner finished his tour of duty at four o’clock and was home watching an old movie on TV by a quarter to five. “Home” was an old-fashioned railroad flat of six rooms, three flights up, in a building which would have been condemned as an ancient tenement—if the area hadn’t become a hangout for artists and writers, and young men with immature beards. The landlords found a mild boom on their hands and were quick to welcome the cafe espresso shops, happy the slum was now a second “Greenwich Village.”
Ruth had insisted upon taking the apartment. It didn’t make a bit of sense to Walt. Between them they had an income of over ten thousand a year, why live in a roach-infested dump, not to mention the long hours he had put in painting and fixing up the place? Still, it was roomy. Ruth had her “den,” furnished with ugly white iron garden furniture, which pleased her for some unknown reason. (Actually it was most uncomfortable, but the wrought iron furniture was a good conversation “thing.” Friends would ask, “How can you possibly write on that table or sit in the hard chair?” Ruth would reply, the proper note of self-sacrifice in her voice, “Writing is an uncomfortable taskmaster.”) The walls of the apartment had conventional bull fight posters, several abstract oils, and framed photostats of checks from the New Yorker and Seventeen for the two stories Ruth had been paid for—in contrast to her yams in the little literary magazines where the “pay” was a few copies of the magazine.
The bedroom and living room were done in severe ebony modern and after a year or so, Walt almost liked the furniture. He also had his “den,” furnished with a battered bookcase and cracked leather couch which Ruth claimed his folks must have brought from Germany when they came over in 1908. On top of the bookcase were the cups and medals Walt had won as an amateur boxer. On the walls were pictures of Walt as a member of the Olympic boxing squad, of Captain Walt Steiner, coach of the 18th Air Force boxing team in Italy. Someplace around the room was a huge dusty scrapbook, the newspaper clippings already crumpling and yellow with age, full of pictures and stories about Walt when he was the Golden Gloves one hundred seventy-six-pound champion.
Although Walt still wore his white Olympic robe with the faded USA on its back—as a shower robe—he rarely opened his scrapbook, or looked at the pictures on the wall. Now and then, while watching TV fights, he would wonder if he’d been smart in turning down the money offers to turn pro—one manager had dangled a $3000 bonus. When reading of the large purses the champions made, Walt sometimes daydreamed of himself as the light heavyweight champ, perhaps fighting Archie Moore. And whenever he read about the money difficulties of Joe Louis and other greats, he was glad he had chosen to be a cop.
Walt did everything with a kind of Teutonic calm efficiency. He was steady but never spectacular. He had a mild sense of humor and an even milder imagination. In the ring he had fought a plodding dull fight, following the rules to the letter. You led with your left and crossed your right. Walt had been defeated in the finals of the National A.A.U. by a skinny Negro who did everything wrong. He clowned, dancing about the ring with his hands down, often led with his right, and told Walt jokes all during the bout. At the end of three puzzling rounds the colored fighter was puffing, obviously out of condition, while muscular Walt could have gone ten rounds, although badly outpointed.
Even now, when he was thirty-three years old and hadn’t boxed in nine years, Walt was only seven pounds over his fighting weight, did stomach exercises every morning. He rarely ate sweets, didn’t smoke, and drank only beer, except when Ruth gave a party and he’d take a few drinks to be sociable.
Watching the cowboy riding like crazy across the TV screen, Walt opened his shirt collar, rubbed his bull neck. He kept nervously glancing at his wrist watch. At five-twenty he began staring at the pink telephone. Ruth should be home about now, but he knew she wouldn’t. She’d call and tell him about having to work late. Walt grinned bitterly. It was like the old gag in reserve, the cartoon of the boss with his secretary on his lap, phoning his wife and saying he was stuck in conference. Who was sitting in Ruth’s lap this minute?
The trouble was, their whole life seemed to be in reverse these days. The other married men on the detective squad went home to have supper with their wives, talk about the funny or unusual things which had happened during the day, horse around with the kids. Walt came home to nothing. But most of the wives he’d met weren’t as clever as Ruth, nor as pretty. They certainly couldn’t edit a cosmetic trade magazine, write the moving little sketches Ruth was always starting—and never finishing. Some day, Walt was certain, if Ruth would only get with it, she would be a famous writer, at least a…
The doorbell rang. Walt jumped to his feet, relief in his big face. Ruth had stopped to shop, must have her hands full of packages, couldn’t use her key. Walt opened the door to see a tall stooped man standing there. From the casual, expensive clothes, Walt thought he must be another of Ruth’s “artistic” friends. The man asked, “Detective Walter Steiner?”
The deep, clear voice, vaguely jolted Walt’s memory. The tall man’s eyes raced to Walt’s hip holster. Walt said, “That’s me.”
“I hope you’ll forgive my barging in like this. I’m Alvin Hammer, the television announcer. I missed you by minutes at the precinct house, couldn’t find your number in the phone book. While I know this is suppertime, I’ll only take a few minutes. I think you’ll be interested in what I have to tell you.”
“We have an unlisted phone,” Walt told him, motioning for Hammer to come in. Depending on his tour, he always listened to Alvin describe the fights. He had imagined Alvin a huskier, older man.
Alvin took off his hat, opened his coat. He was impressed by the furniture, the oils and prints on the wall. Offering Walt a cigarette, he lit one himself, said, “I’ve come to you because I know of your interest in boxing. There’s something, well, odd, going on. I don’t quite know how to handle it. I may be sticking my nose into something. I mean, I’m not sure it’s a police matter.”
Crossing the room to turn off the cowboy—now slugging another cowhand like crazy—on TV, Walt asked, “What’s troubling you?”
“Do you know a fighter named Irish Tommy Cork?”
“Cork? Isn’t he the old welter who came out with his eye badly cut, flattened the other guy?”
Alvin flushed, waved his thin hands in the air, took off his glasses and cleaned them with a paper handkerchief. “Lord, I’ll never live that down. You must understand how it happened, Mr. Steiner. The worst thing possible in my business is dead air. Sure way of making a listener switch to another channel. By dead air, I mean a dead screen, nothing happening. The fights are timed to finish at ten-fifty-five, when we have five minutes of newscast and commercials. On that night everything went wrong. It was just one of those nights. First, I knew a would-be sponsor was watching the show. Then, if you recall, this Rocky Preston finished his opponent in the second round. Tommy and a youngster named Simpson were set for the stand-by bout. Simpson couldn’t find his left boxing shoe, of all things, so I stalled by interviewing a ballplayer I saw sitting ringside. While there’s no point in going into this now, suffice it to say we also had operating difficulties that night, too. I was out of phone contact with my studio for part of the time. It’s hardly a secret in the business that I often become quite emotional during a fight. I feel things so damn strongly.”
Walt smiled. “Stronger than the guys in the ring?”
“Come now, that’s unfair,” Alvin said, killing his cigarette in an ash tray, packing and lighting his pipe—all of it one continuous motion. “I’m hardly one of these ‘he can’t hurt us’ characters. I’m sincere about my ring feelings. The point is, as you must remember, Tommy suffered a severe cut over his right eye when he was butted near the end of the third round. Well, there was one more round to go and they’re holding a regular damn conference in Tommy’s corner between rounds; the referee, the doctor… and, I motioned to the announcer that we had seven minutes air time left. Perhaps that was my mistake, for the others were also aware of the time on our hands, and for that very reason seemed afraid to stop the bout. You understand, it was up to the doctor or the ref to stop the bout, not me. It became downright ridiculous; Tommy sitting in his comer, bleeding badly while they argued. They weren’t doing a dam thing to help Tommy, or even toward stopping the fight. They were simply talking. I motioned for the timekeeper to ring the bell, yelled for Tommy to come out. He did, and flattened Simpson with a left hook—certainly one of the most stirring moments in TV sport history.”
“No doubt. But another punch on the eye might have blinded him for life.”
“Oh for Godsake, they weren’t doing a thing for his eye in his corner! The eye needed stitching. That’s why I motioned for the bell, hoped it would force the referee to call a halt to the bout. When he kept yakking away with that doctor, I yelled for Tommy to get in there, thinking it would make them act. But Irish solved matters himself, with that sweet left hook. Matter of fact, that’s one of the reasons I’m interested in Tommy. I admire courage, unashamedly admire it.”
“Irish Tommy Cork, a washed-up old man. Robinson once gave him a terrific beating,” Walt said, as if reciting a prepared lesson.
“Exactly why I’m here. He is washed-up. Unfortunately Tommy’s had a bum deal most of his career. I try to do what I can for him, now. I lend him money. I’ve urged him to quit, but he won’t. There’s something… majestic… about his self-confidence which one simply must respect. Lately, I’ve tried to find him a job, but it’s been difficult. All he knows is fighting. Perhaps you may also recall that after he won the cut-eye fight, I insisted my station foot his hospital bills. I also demanded he get a semifinal bout a month later. Tommy lost. It’s such a lousy, vicious circle; he hasn’t the money to train properly, thus he is not able to make the most of any opportunity coming his way.”
“What’s on your mind? Do you want me to referee a benefit for him?”
“That would be an idea. Perhaps I can talk Bob Becker into working on it. But the reason I’m here, I suspect somebody is setting the old lad up for murder.”
“I know it sounds fantastic, which is why I haven’t been to the police—officially,” Alvin said. “In fact, I’m more or less working on a hunch.” He lit his pipe again, tossed a match into the glass ash try. “Say, this is a neat bit of glass work. From Venice?”
“Who knows. Now what’s with this murder idea?”
“Did you see my show two weeks ago? Tommy was in the emergency four-rounder again and he was pitiful, completely out of shape.”
“Two weeks ago I was working a four to midnight shift, so I didn’t see it.”
“Becker, the matchmaker, used to be Tommy’s manager. He’s the one who rushed him into the Robinson bout. And he gives the old boy these four-rounders, whether he’s in shape or not, and takes a cut of the lousy sixty bucks. Greedy bastard. The point is, Tommy made a miserable showing. That’s when I suggested he forget fighting, said I’d try to find him a job as a messenger. Well, that was two weeks ago. Have you ever been to the Between Rounds Bar?”
“I know where it is. Fight mob hangout.”
“I drop in there regularly, absorb background for my broadcasts. I saw Tommy there this afternoon, looking fine. He’s dressed like ready money, even has a few bucks on him. He tells me this impossible yam about a man named Arno Brewer who not only took Tommy up to a country training camp for a week, advanced him money for clothes and pays his room and board at the Southside Hotel, but says he’ll make Tommy a champ.”
“So what? A nutty rich fight buff.”
Alvin lit his pipe again. After a few puffs he said, “That’s what I thought. I figured Tommy could live off the guy for a while, take it easy. Of course it did strike me as odd any man would take the old boy on after the utterly miserable showing he made that night—which was when this Brewer picked him up. Another odd bit, Brewer is not his manager of record. In fact, the whole thing is supposed to be quiet. I wouldn’t have known about it except for something else which came up. I tell you it did my heart good to see Tommy looking well-fed, hear he was training daily at some small uptown gym. Now, do you recall an old-timer named Maxie Coney, a featherweight?”
Walt shook his head.
“Before my day, too. He’s in the insurance business now. While I was talking to Tommy, Maxie walks over to our booth and asks Cork why he hadn’t given him the business. Seems this rich character took out a policy on Tommy, told Tommy it was protection for both of them in case Tommy was hurt. It seems he has lent Tommy about three hundred and fifty dollars to date. Naturally Brewer is the beneficiary. But it’s odd, if this fellow is so wealthy, to cover for a few hundred…”
“You mean it’s only an accident policy?” Walt asked, glancing at his watch. It was five-forty-eight. If Ruth hadn’t phoned by now, perhaps she was coming home after all.
“As Coney explained, it’s an expensive policy covering accidents, most kinds of disability, and of course, death. I imagine the company was hesitant about insuring an old pug, even though Tommy passed the physical. They called in Coney to look at the policy, which is how he happened to know about it. Well… Please don’t look at your watch again, Mr. Steiner. I won’t take up much more of your time, and it drives me nervous.”
“Sorry. I’m… eh… expecting a call from my wife. Did Coney okay the policy?”
“Yes, with some changes in the disability payments. But that’s not important. When Maxie asked Tommy, again, why he hadn’t come to him with the business, Tommy said this Brewer had arranged things, and besides, it was only a small policy—twenty-five hundred dollars. This is where my suspicions went into orbit. Coney told him, ‘No, you’re wrong, it’s for twenty-five thousand dollars.’ Tommy said Maxie must be mistaken, but Irish admitted he hadn’t ever actually read the policy, merely signed where Brewer told him. Since this is Coney’s job, and he was positive, the policy must be for twenty-five grand. That didn’t upset Tommy. He said it only proved how rich Brewer was. Irish was more upset over our knowing about the deal, swore us to secrecy. I talked to Coney later and he told me there’s also a double indemnity clause in the policy!”
“I thought they didn’t have double indemnity any more?”
“Not in the average policy, but Coney said you can have it, if you pay. Do I have to draw a blueprint? After putting on the worst fight of his career, Tommy is signed by Brewer. And now it turns out the old boy is worth fifty grand to Brewer—dead!”
Walt rubbed his shoulder muscles, for the first time taking some interest in Alvin’s chatter. “You think there’s going to be some sort of car accident to Cork?”
Alvin stood up, and for a moment it was a jack-in-the-box movement, and it seemed his head might hit the ceiling. He paced the room nervously, sucking on his dead pipe. “Perhaps. Brewer has a sport car he lets Tommy use. Also he’s a food nut and always having Irish try strange dishes. But I think there’s even a better gimmick here. When I voiced some of my… doubts, to Tommy, he let me in on the rest of the supposed secret. Brewer has another fighter, a welter named Jake Watson. Now Tommy’s had over a hundred bouts, has fought and/or sparred with thousands of fighters. Irish claims Jake is absolutely sensational, the best he’s ever seen. Not only as good as Robinson, Olson, and LaMotta, but a combination of all three. Tommy actually raved about Jake, said he was strong as a bull, a fast, flashy boxer, and packs the wallop of a heavyweight. Why Tommy told me in their first sparring session, Jake knocked him cold. He was out for ten minutes, despite using heavy gloves and a headguard.” Alvin turned abruptly, facing Walt, his intense thin face waiting for a reply.
Walt looked blank. “You lost me on one of the turns. What’s all this add up to?”
“Don’t you see their plan? Here’s Tommy, an alcoholic shell of his old self, a pug on the verge of having his license revoked because he’s physically unfit. Now, assuming Jake is the belter Tommy claims—and I’ve never heard Irish rave so about a fighter—what’s to stop Tommy being killed in the ring? Being beaten to death in a sparring session?”
Walt shook his head slowly. “That’s too difficult to count on, too far-fetched.”
“Is it? There have been plenty of ring deaths.”
“Only because there aren’t many clubs operating, fewer fights. Also the automatic eight count, and the three knockdown rule has helped. But they don’t go in a sparring session. If Jake can really hit, and Irish has no reason to yeast it up, what’s to stop Jake from beating a has-been like Tommy to death?”
“Come on now, a fist isn’t a gun. You can belt a guy hard as you can and still not be sure you’ll drop him, much less kill him. Also, as you said, Tommy isn’t a novice. He probably isn’t easy to hit.”
“I told you he’s already been knocked cold in a sparring session.”
“I’ve heard that even champs like Patterson are sometimes floored by a sparring partner.”
“Of course. So if Tommy is killed while sparring, it will look an accident! And what have they to lose? If a punch doesn’t do it, they try again. Or resort to an auto accident, a fall, drowning, many other ways.”
“And get themselves collared. Arranging a fatal accident isn’t as simple as it may sound.”
“Exactly!” Alvin boomed, his deep voice rattling the pictures on the wall. “Suppose, after they soften him up in these sparring sessions, they kill him in the ring! The perfect crime, with hundreds of witnesses saying it was an accident! Far as I know, there’s never been a murder, or even a manslaughter conviction against a pug for killing a man in the squared circle. Think of the flexibility of it all, the way they have their victim in their pocket. They can take their time, do it in a month, or six months. They receive fifty grand, wait a year or two, start all over on some other rundown pug!”
“Hammer, you’re not writing a mystery story. A killer has to make it a sure thing, in real life.”
Alvin shrugged. “Here’s something else. I checked with the commission. There isn’t any record of an Arno Brewer as a manager. Why isn’t he down as manager of Tommy, or the other pug?”
“There can be a dozen reasons. Perhaps he’s ducking taxes.”
“Well, I think it’s certainly worth looking into. Jake Watson took out a license. I asked if they had checked on his fingerprints for any possible criminal record. But you know how easy-going they are in the commission’s office. They said they were working on…”
The phone rang. Walt jumped, picked up the pink receiver. “Hello?”
Ruth Steiner said, “Walt, I won’t be home for dinner tonight. I’m tied up at the printers. They messed up an article and I’ll have to hang around to correct the new…”
“Okay,” Walt said. He could hear music in the background.
“I may be home late. I also have to check with a photographer on some last minute…”
“Yes. Thanks for calling,” he said dully.
There was a moment of surprised silence at her end of the phone. Then she said, “There isn’t much in the refrigerator. I expected to shop on my way home. Best you eat out.”
“I’ll manage.” Walt hung up, full of hurt anger. As he sat down, Alvin resumed his pacing of the room. Walt thought, For the last three months she’s been at me, digging me, torturing me. You’d think she’d found me with another woman. What the devil has changed? What’s happening to us? I don’t know how much more I can take. Suppose I had agreed to go to Paris with her, then what? Ruth must have understood I couldn’t get a year’s leave from the department. She… Hell, why doesn’t she do that book and get it out of her system? She doesn’t have to work on this trade magazine. She can sit home and write all day. I swear, if she was older, I’d say Ruth was going through the change of life or…
Alvin stopped in front of Walt, asked, “What will you do about this, detective?”
“Do? Do? I wish I knew what…” Walt rubbed his big jaw. “About Tommy Cork—what do you expect me to do? I certainly can’t arrest this Arno Brewer; we have nothing working for us. Even your suspicions are full of holes. You said Tommy is looking fine, eating regularly. That contradicts your murder idea—they wouldn’t be building him up, physically. Then, if this other fighter, Jake, is really such a hot pug, why monkey with an insurance swindle when Jake can make a dozen times fifty thousand in the ring?”
“I admit I haven’t absolute proof of anything definite. As to Tommy’s looking good, so what? In a couple of weeks the body can’t compensate for all the wine, the hunger, the beatings, it has absorbed over the years. The main question is, why should anybody want to manage a washed-up pug like Cork?”
“You know Tommy’s story could be true. There are such types as rich boxing buffs. Also, he may have taken out the policy, as he said, only to protect Tommy and himself. A well known novelist once supported a pug for years, managing him to obscurity. Some people like to keep a boxer around like a… a pet. When I was in the amateurs I had a few offers like that from wealthy jerks—a cash bonus if I attended a certain college, use of a sport car for joining a downtown athletic club.”
“Why should Brewer pay extra for a double indemnity policy?”
Walt shrugged his heavy shoulders. “I admit that sounds fishy. You said they’d been up at this training camp for two weeks. Did Tommy continue to spar with Jake after he was flattened?”
“I don’t know. Steiner, I didn’t expect you to rush out and make an arrest. If I had, I would have gone directly to the police. Officially, I mean. But I can’t stand by and see the little game cock killed. No point in doing something when it’s too late. Knowing your interest in the sport, I thought you might look into things.”
“Okay, I’ll get a copy of this Jake Watson’s prints from the commission tomorrow, see what they tell us. Of course there’s a simple answer to all this. Have Tommy cancel the policy. That would prove how interested this Arno really is. Matter of fact, if you raised your suspicions to the insurance company, or had Coney do it, the company would cancel.”
Alvin’s long face became one big grin. “That’s our answer! I’ll get Tommy to cancel out. I couldn’t, publicly, put in my two cents. I might be sued. Mr. Steiner, while…”
“Call me, Walt, Al.”
“Walt, as I said when I first came in, I realize this is an awkward hour to talk business. But don’t you think you might get a clearer picture by speaking to Tommy himself?”
“That would help. When can I see him?”
“He’s meeting me at the Between Rounds for supper. Of course, you’re probably waiting for your wife, but perhaps tomorrow night we can…”
“It just happens my wife is stuck in the office,” Walt said slowly. “Let me wash up and we’ll get cracking. I’m hungry.”
An hour later, sitting across the table from Tommy and Alvin in a steak house, Walt wished he hadn’t come. Tommy Cork was telling Alvin, anger making his voice tremble, “What you doing, spoiling things for me? I let you in on a big secret, about how we’re going to spring Jake as a surprise on the fight boys, and you swear you’ll keep it to yourself. Now he’s in on it. I told you, if it gets known, it’s nothing, and then where am I?”
“Tommy, Tommy, I’m not broadcasting it to the world. I had to tell Walt, so he could be filled in on all the details.”
Walt wasn’t listening. He was wondering what he was going to do about Ruth. Although they shared the same bed, they hadn’t “slept” together for nearly two months. But what frightened Walt most was that he know they were heading smack for an open break. Aside from the fact Ruth was the first and only woman he’d ever been truly fond of, Walt also felt a marriage was unbreakable. It had nothing to do with his religious beliefs; he was simply a man who only expected to marry once. If things didn’t come to a boil, Walt was sure, in time, whatever was biting Ruth would calm down. If she’d only tell him what was wrong, discuss things. Because he’d said he couldn’t spend a year in Paris, she acted as if he was doing it all to spite…
“Walt,” Alvin said, “explain to Tommy about canceling the policy.”
“What?” Tommy cut in. “You guys are talking like you got paper brains. If I cancel the policy, Arno will get sore, wash his hands of me. Why if I even hinted about this crazy notion Al has, he’d be insulted. No!”
Walt said, “Tommy, you don’t have to do anything, if you want it that way. I can… suggest what Alvin thinks to the insurance company and they will cancel before the policy goes into effect. If that happened, and you’d be in the clear, and Arno gave you the brush, wouldn’t that prove Alvin is right? If Arno still backed you, it would show we’re wrong.”
“No, it wouldn’t show anything except I ought to have my head examined. This is my break, my Irish luck, and you guys want me to louse it up because Al has a wild hair tickling his mind. Lay off me. What if Arno is so rich he took out a twenty-five grand policy on me? Could be that’s what he told me, and I didn’t hear right, thought he said twenty* five hundred. What’s the big diff if he took out a million dollar policy? It’s his dough. Look, Walt, I appreciate you and Al thinking you’re doing this to protect me, but you don’t understand the deal. The day before my last bout I was so hungry I sold a pint of blood to eat. Now sixteen days…”
“You sold your blood before that fight?” Alvin asked shocked, his face actually going pale.
“Now, sixteen days later, I’m eating three times a day, living in a fine hotel. I have pocket money and fit into a rich cat’s plans. I’m a guy with a future, suddenly. I can’t risk all that. Sure, if Arno asked me to do something unreasonable, I could buck it. But when a guy is breaking his hump to help me, how would I sound saying I don’t like this and that?”
“Your life may be at stake!” Alvin thundered.
An annoyed look crossed Tommy’s small face. “Easy, AL you ain’t on the air. Keep your pear-shaped tone down. Nobody says I’m in danger but you. Hell, before I was more in danger—of not eating! You think guys are falling over themselves, standing in line waiting to manage me?”
Al said, “Can’t you see?”
“Tommy’s right,” Walt cut in, wondering if he would have ended up like this if he’d turned pro. “We don’t have any stand-up proof to go with, as of now. Let me nose around. Tommy, you keep your ears open, try to find out more about them. Like who Jake has battled and where. How Arno made his bankroll. Be careful, don’t be obvious about things. I think we have time on this. If we come up with something, we’ll act. If we draw blanks we won’t have spoiled Tommy’s soft touch.”
“That talk I’ll buy,” Tommy said, finishing his ice cream. Alvin stirred his coffee, as if whipping it. “You still spar every day with Jake?”
“Most days. Beginning tomorrow I’m going to start working out by myself at the Crosstown Gym, start getting some bouts. I’m feeling great and don’t have “to worry about taking quickie bouts.”
“Does Jake bang away at you?” Walt asked. “Has he ever flattened you again?”
“Naw. Like I told Al, that first time he belted me he was lucky. I was hungover and showing off, coming in southpaw. Sure he hits like a hammer, tries to clout me, but I’m not a slob when it comes to defense. The ‘Bobbing Cork’ they used to call me. I don’t let Jake get lucky no more.”
“You have my phone number. If anything unusual comes up, or if you learn anything about either of them, call me. At the precinct or home,” Walt said.
“Sure. Listen, if I thought there was anything phony, I’d be the first to blow the whistle. I don’t aim to get myself killed.”
“Be careful,” Walt said. “Stay out of their car. Don’t eat nothing you’re doubtful about.”
“You trying to give me a nervous breakdown?” Tommy asked, with a tight smile. “Arno lets me use his car any time I want, and he’s always taking me to dizzy restaurants. Hey, you guys ever eat raw fish? Or rattlesnake meat? Don’t make a face, I was surprised too. Never know what you’re eating— if nobody told you.”
There was a moment of silence. The waiter left the check and Alvin didn’t have any trouble taking it. Walt was busy thinking if he should chance going to Ruth’s office—or would that end in a showdown? Beside, she said she was at the printer’s, wherever that was. Tommy didn’t expect to pay, of course.
Outside, they stood around awkwardly for a moment. Alvin had a premiere of a new TV quiz show one of his sponsors was starting. Did they want to tag along?
Tommy said he’d like to but wanted to see his wife, hadn’t had a chance to tell her of his good luck since he’d come back from the country.
Walt didn’t know what he wanted to do, although he didn’t feel like sitting around the empty apartment. As Tommy waved, walking down the block, limping slightly but a swagger to his walk, Alvin told Walt, “He’s not punchy, the limp comes from an old broken toe. It galls me, a sweet guy like Tommy having to sell blood. What a fighting heart! They don’t make them from his mold any more. Think of it, he’s answered the bell over a hundred times, a hundred tests of pure courage and…”
“Well, I have to be on my horse,” Walt cut in, knowing he wasn’t in the mood for any hot air either. He had few illusions about the fight racket. He knew it was a lousy and brutal buck. But still, if a fellow got the breaks and could get in and out fast, there was big money. The cut from a decent bout would keep him and Ruth in Paris for years.
Alvin said, “I’ll keep in touch, Walt. Look, any time you want rickets for the fights, or TV shows, let me know.”
They parted at the corner. Walt walked around the block, restlessly reading the movie marquees. Finally, he bought a paper and headed for the apartment.
Passing a bar, he saw Tommy inside, having a few quick shots.
After they ate in a Syrian restaurant Arno had found, he suggested they take in a movie. But Jake shook his head, said he was too tired and wanted to hit the sack. He returned to the hotel.
Arno was going to the movie alone, but on the spur of nothing decided to get some sleep himself. Buying the evening paper and a jar of pickled black walnuts, he went up to their room. Jake wasn’t there, but his overcoat and hat were hanging in the closet. Arno rang for a bellhop. Giving him a buck he asked, “Where’s your girls, son?”
“Sir, the Southside doesn’t allow that sort of…”
“Cut the gas, boy,” Arno said, slipping him another buck.
The bellhop was a stocky youngster with a sharp face, baby-scrubbed skin, and very wise eyes. Winking, he told Arno, “I know you’re an all right guy, mister. Tell ya, there is one gal doing business. Real cute babe. But she’s working now and you’ll have to wait….”
“I know who she’s working on, too. What’s the room number?”
The bellhop hesitated. Arno went over to the bedside phone, put a fat hand on it. “Rather I ask the manager, son?”
“Aw now, mister, that’s no way to act. Your buddy just went…”
“I know all about it. What’s the room number?”
“Forget I asked, and don’t try racing me to the room. What do they call you, kid?”
“Okay, Billy-boy, beat it. You look like a hard-working, ambitious youngster. Maybe you’ll work your way up to being a big-time pimp.”
On the way down to Room one-fourteen Arno tried one of the black walnuts. It was far too sweet and he tossed the rest of the jar into a sand-filled ash tray outside the elevator door.
Listening for a moment at the door of one-fourteen, Arno grinned as he heard muffled talk. Knocking gently, he heard the small sounds of bare feet crossing a carpet, then a woman’s “Yes?”
“Billy. Open up,” Arno said, talking into the lapel of his coat to muffle the sound.
The woman whispered, “I’m busy.”
“Don’t I know it? This is important.”
She cracked the door and Arno pushed it open, knocking a tall naked girl against the wall. She held her white belly where the doorknob had hit her. Jake was stretched out on the bed, also nude. Arno smiled at him, thinking, How dumb can a joker get? With a body like that he keeps paying for it.
The girl shut the door and, still holding one hand over her stomach, the other making a futile if modest attempt at covering her bouncing breasts, she asked, “What is this?”
“Don’t worry about it, honey, I’m with him,” Arno said, sitting on the bed and watching Jake. The veins in his nose seemed very dark red in contrast to Arno’s pasty face. He called over his shoulder, “Put a robe on and take a walk, hon. Or get in the can and stay there for a few minutes. I know you’ve been paid and the dough is yours.” Arno examined his nails for a second and suddenly a slim but vicious-looking switchblade appeared in his right hand. The blade, in the shape of a dagger, was razor sharp. He delicately cleaned his nails with the knife. When the girl closed the bathroom door, Arno said, “Jake, get dressed.”
“What’s wrong with me having a broad?”
“You’re in training.”
“Aw, stop it. A gal relaxes…”
“Stupid bastard, get dressed!” Arno said, keeping his voice low and steady. “You know I let you have all the trim you want, when I’m around to supervise things. But not when you’re in training for…”
“But that might not be for weeks, months! You think I’m a monk or…?”
“I think it took me a long time to find our man. I don’t intend chancing the deal being queered by you getting sick. Get dressed—fast!”
Jake got out of bed slowly, began dressing. Arno grinned at him. “Although you have the mind of a ten-year-old, don’t glare at me like a kid, Jake. I know exactly what you’re thinking, and forget it. I haven’t muscles and I braise easily.” Arno waved the knife in the air as if it were a baton. “It’s a funny world—there’s you, one hundred forty-eight pounds of fighting muscle. And this knife can’t weigh more than a few ounces, yet… Did I ever tell you about a slob I knew who found his wife two-timing him? Jake, all he did was make one fast motion over the back of her legs, sliced the muscles. She never walked again. One slash and those big muscles in your arms might be severed, never lift your arms again. The docs don’t know how to sew nerves together— yet. Or a…”
“Okay, okay,” Jake said, quickly buttoning his shirt. “I’m out twenty bucks. I’ll ask her…”
“Nope, we don’t want a stink. I came as fast as I could,” Arno said, suddenly chuckling. “You see the way she caught the door? Like an old burlesque skit I once saw. Come on, lover, let’s get some sleep.”
“But twenty bucks? I…”
“So you dropped two bills. That’s better than being out fifty grand.”
Hanging up, Ruth sat in the phone booth and leisurely lit a cigarette. They were in some sort of coffee shop, a restaurant which had a juke box full of progressive jazz records. Trust Burgie to know a place like this. She could see his bald head now as he sat at their table, sipping wine. Of course you could also trust Burgie to over-do things, like ordering wine by the year, as if he really knew the difference.
Ruth was a trifle puzzled and upset. She knew why, and that upset her more. Walt had sounded almost abrupt over the phone. Usually when she said she wasn’t coming home he would argue, plead, whine; at least ask if he should wait supper for her. Tonight? “I suppose I do get some sort of enjoyment when he crawls,” Ruth told herself. “Perhaps because he’s so strong, so damn sure of himself. Oh Lord, I’m thinking like a neurotic bitch, wanting him to crawl. Plenty of women would love to touch his muscles, be in my… Did Walt have somebody in the apartment? He would never do that—I think.” For a second she was tempted to call back, but the whole idea was silly, so instead she left the phone booth, glanced at herself in a wall mirror as she walked toward their table.
Ruth had a number of problems, and a very real one was her weight. She was a big woman, a half inch short of six feet tall (in flat shoes) and a solid one hundred sixty-eight pounds. Actually, it was well-distributed and the mirror showed a tall, shapely woman. But most of the other girls she knew seemed to weigh less than one hundred fifteen pounds and forgetting her height Ruth was in constant tenor of becoming a “two-ton slob” as she called it. Calorie-watching was one of the many things nicking her mind.
Burges Flynn didn’t make any effort to rise when Ruth sat, and she would have been astonished if he had. He was a short, wiry, little man with an almost completely bald head fringed with thin blonde hair, a big-featured face so homely it was attractive, and nervous eyes. He was wearing shaggy tweeds, a plaid wool shirt, and a pointed yellow beard which he believed gave him a “devilish” look. Burges was a free-lance photographer who made a point of being friendly with female editors. Watching Ruth cross toward the table Burges had thought, My, but she’s a big one. It should be most interesting; I ought to wear a jockey outfit for the occasion. Tiny me, I trust I won’t need a compass. He said, “I’ve ordered. The wine is quite good. Did you make the proper lies and excuses to your husband?”
“Aren’t we just too cynical tonight, or at least trying too hard?” Ruth said, sipping the chilled, very dry wine. (She loved sweet wine but was ashamed, for some reason, to order any with Burges.)
“I hardly think I’m trying to be cynical,” Burges said. He had a practiced way of talking as if each word was a great effort he was happy to let go of. “Having once seen that ox you’re married to, I sincerely hope your excuses were proper—and believable. Mr. Steiner looked quite capable of beating me to a pulp. Or at the very least, slapping me out of shape with his blackjack. Say, does he let you handle his gun?”
“Please, let’s not talk about him. I liked your pictures for the perfume article.”
Burges held up his palm and scratched his little beard on it. “I don’t know if that’s a compliment or an insult. Pose a doll-faced model against a white screen, without having to consider composition, or getting any character into the shot—for the model has the intellect of a backward moron. Really, Ruth, a child with a Brownie could do as well. Still, to be trite…”
“I know, it’s a living,” Ruth cut in as the waiter brought the food. They were both hungry and for a few minutes ate in silence, Ruth forcing herself to stay with only one bread-stick. Over coffee, she lit two cigarettes, handed Burges one. “Are we going to take in the Steichen exhibit at the Modem Arts tonight?”
“I’ve seen enough photographs for one day.”
“Jose Limon is dancing at…”
“Honey, the ballet bores me. I have something else in mind for us this evening.”
“Well, I’ve actually cleaned up my studio for the occasion. I think it’s about time we went to bed,” Burges said, enjoying the slight, quick shock on her face.
Ruth’s reaction was a combination thrill and slight feeling of fear. Although she had been expecting this from Burgie, even a bit disappointed he hadn’t propositioned her sooner, she wasn’t certain what her answer would be. Outside of one bungled attempt at sex in college, prompted mostly by curiosity, Ruth hadn’t slept with any man except Walt. But she’d given it much thought, sometime wondering if sleeping around might mature her as a writer. It was like the time someone suggested she smoke a stick of “tea” for kicks. Ruth had wanted to but was afraid.
Now Burges blew a cloud of smoke at her and grinned. “Well, well, has anybody seen my sophisticated Ruth, the dirty joke queen? You’re reacting like Sal-from-Carrot-Cross-roads.”
“I’m merely thinking it over. Or did you expect me to jump to attention with sheer joy? It was an abrupt offer.”
“Nonsense, we’re not kids. We’ve been seeing a good deal of each other, and it’s time we tried it in the hay. Simple as that, really.”
“Really?” Ruth mimicked, trying to keep fear and doubt from her voice. “Burgie, I don’t think you quite understand the type of female I am.”
“But I do, I do the most. You’re the type female I want to sleep with. I trust I’m your boy-type.”
“Stop making this sound like a blood test,” Ruth said, lighting a fresh cigarette, to stall for time. “I’m very serious, Burgie. I’m not saying no. The truth is I may want to say yes. But there’s one thing about me you first have to understand. I’m a…”
Flynn held up a tobacco-stained hand. “Ruth, stop making with all the talk. And I do understand you—perfectly. My darling, you’re a bum. Wait, wait, wait, and get the anger from your eyes. I don’t mean a bed tramp, but an intellectual bum. You gas and moan about that great book within you—as you find a million excuses for not writing it. Undoubtedly you’re afraid you’ll learn you lack the talent. So you play it safe, never try to find if you have it or not. Next year, the year after, ten years from now, you’ll be sitting at this same table, or in some other bar, playing the same record, ‘If only I had the time to work on my book.’ That’s pure baloney, Ruthie dearest, and very stale baloney, at that.”
Her face was pale as she said, “Flattery will get you no place. You… !”
Burges reached across the table, squeezed her hand. “Honey, I understand you because we are alike. I’m a bum, too, so I know. We try to crucify ourselves on the cross of talent because we may be strictly no-talent characters. We are flagellants, beating ourselves with the success of others— and enjoying the pain. We…”
“I don’t know what you are trying…”
“Come on, Ruthie, you know it’s true This is the voice of experience talking. I’ve told my sad tale in Nice, in Hollywood, over cocktails in Chicago, Greenwich Village, did my song and dance as far south as Mexico City and north in Montreal, the pitiful tale of what an artist I am with the camera, the photo masterpieces and portraits I will shoot— some day. Those snatches of life I will stop and capture with my lens. Honeybunch, it isn’t so much can I do it, but will I ever do it. I’m a guy who’s been around and around, so I don’t kid myself; it’s far more comfortable to talk about it, than give it the old college try. Frankly, I’ve had my chances. In the navy I had the best equipment possible, loads of time. And once I married a wealthy biddy who set me up with everything I needed. As you have your opportunity now. You don’t have to work, hide behind your job. You could devote all your time to your writing. Let’s put it on the line, honey, we’re both phonies, in our own little way. ‘Art’ will always be a word in quotes to us, the impossible carrot dangling before our noses.”
“Burgie, you have hidden talents! You’re wasting your time behind a camera. You should be sitting beside the couch, taking notes. Or maybe on the couch!”
“One thing at a time,” he said, pressing her hand again. “At the moment all I desire to be on is you.”
“Oh, how sweetly you put it!”
“Come on, Ruthie, we’re at least above the corny seduction lies and drinks. You’re a hell of an attractive woman. I want you. That’s my story; what’s yours?”
“Now you sound like a lawyer, asking for a yes or no answer. Since we’re being oh-so-frank, there’s one thing you don’t know about me, wise old owl. If I sleep with you it can’t be any one-night stand. I’m a throwback to… something. Are you asking me to leave my husband and live with you?”
Burges took his hands from hers, rested his face on his palms and played with his beard. After staring at Ruth for a long second, he said, “Really, you’re beginning to sound like one of my empty-faced models, completely simple.”
“Burgie, I’m not a prissy puritan, I trust. Nor am I a wanton, an easy…”
“Wanton? Oh please! Please! You say live with me, those just words or do you actually mean it?”
“I mean it, of course.”
“But what does ‘live with me’ mean? Tonight we’ll be living together. If we hit it off okay, we might live together tomorrow, the following day, for a year, or until we’re ready for Social Security. But even if we set up house tonight and tomorrow turned out to be dull—that would be the end of it for me. Even if we were married, legal, and what-not. In short, no guarantee comes with my bed.”
“Under all those words, how is this different from a one-night stand?”
“I don’t know. As I said, if the one night turns out interesting, we keep going. My dear, one of the occupational diseases of our day is trying to stretch something good until it turns sour. In this lousy world I believe in finding happiness where you can. The food was fine here tonight, but that hardly means I’ll be eating breakfast and lunch here tomorrow. Don’t try to push your luck is my motto.”
“I see. I’ll have to think about it.”
Flynn motioned for the check. They didn’t talk again until they stood outside, when he said, “I’ll put you in a cab. When you’ve thought it over, give me a ring.”
“For your next tidy, here’s another motto: don’t push your rudeness!”
Burgie reached up to kiss her, but Ruth shook her head. He smiled as he said, “But I’m not being rude, sweet. Surely you can understand that being around you and not having you is sheer torture for my sensuous nature. Rude? Indeed no, but I am being terribly honest.”
He stopped a passing cab and holding the door open for Ruth, told her, “I sincerely hope, and expect, to hear from you very soon. Perhaps tonight.”
When the cab pulled away, Burges dropped into a bar for a fast one. He felt very dramatic and pleased with himself, although he also vaguely wondered if he had talked himself out of some work. But he felt sure she would call him within hours. Beside, her trade magazine could only mean so much money—about enough to cover his rent. And tonight he couldn’t resist the cool act he’d put on. Burges had enjoyed it more than if he had taken Ruth to his place. As for becoming tied up with her—My God!
Riding in the cab, Ruth lit a cigarette and somehow felt like a little girl who has been scolded. For no reason she found herself remembering the time she was sixteen and joined the high school ballet group. The teacher was a snippy old maid who’d taken one look at Ruth’s stocky big body in the skin-tight leotard, and told her loudly, “You would rupture any unfortunate boy trying to lift you. I think you’d do better to try out for the football squad.” Of course this was followed by a chorus of snickers from the other girls.
Later, when Ruth had used the incident in a story published in a literary magazine, she had made the teacher a homo. It had given her a great sense of revenge, almost made up for the hurt. But at the time she had a feeling she had no real business in trying to be a ballet dancer, and certainly no need for outside activity. That had been foolish; being assistant editor of the school paper kept her running after school. And Ruth had, in a sense, the very same feeling now with Burges. She really didn’t want to be that ‘Bohemian.’ Yet the thought of being only Walt’s wife rankled her, seemed a defeat. For a journalism major who had won a medal for the best creative writing in college to end up as a mere housewife for a detective was a hell of a letdown. Ruth was also aware, when she could think clearly and honestly enough about it, that she was using Walt for a whipping boy.
She knew many husbands would not want their wives to write, probably because of intellectual jealousy. But not Walt. He often gave her material from some of his cases to use. Her highest-paid story, the one which had brought the query from a publishing house about a novel, was based on an arrest Walt had made.
Leaning back in the cab, still troubled (and relieved) at the way things had turned out tonight, Ruth told herself, “It was all so wonderful with Walt—at the start. Real star-dust. What’s happened to us? Now that’s a clever line. Half the married people in the world must be asking it. Perhaps if we’d had a baby? Another smart line. Your marriage is breaking, grab a baby for glue. Beside, that isn’t my fault, or Walt’s. We never were lucky. Never. I sound like an old hag. Maybe we’ll still have a child. But that can’t be our answer. Burgie says I don’t have to work—go write. He sounds like Walt, refusing to understand why I needed the fellowship. At least Burgie must know one needs the right kind of atmosphere to create. One simply can’t sit before a typewriter every day like a stenographer and turn out a good book. Would I be able to work better around a Burgie? True, he’s more my kind…” Ruth giggled, remembering what he’d said. They were both bums.
The cab stopped for a light. Glancing out the window Ruth saw the street busy with people going to watch the hockey game at the stadium. She remembered the first time Walt had taken her there. It seemed so exciting and… When was that, their second or third date?
Upon graduating from college Ruth rushed to find an apartment with another girl, an aspiring actress, on the edge of the alleged “arty” section of town. It was a miserable cold water flat, bug- and mouse-infested, but it was tremendous fun and excitement in the beginning: the time they had stayed up all day and night to paint the flat with wild colors; meeting other writers and artists; the long bull sessions; the informality; the freedom; the feeling of being a part of things—all of them so pure and high-minded, and actually a gassy part of nothing. Although she had sold a story for a hundred dollars, and was given envious pats on the back, Ruth very soon found she had to get a job. She came from a middle class family and could have asked for money, but never did after overhearing her father, when Momma suggested he pay Ruth’s rent for a year, wisecrack, “For this she needs a college education?”
For a time she didn’t even attempt to find editorial work, afraid it might “spoil” her writing talent. Ruth took a part-time sales job in a department store. Regularly at noon she rode the subway uptown. Almost as regularly she noticed Walt. She had to. They always seemed to ride the same car and were the tallest people on the train. After the fifth or six day, they grinned at each other. Walt asked for a date the following noon.
Walt was an exciting experience for Ruth. For one thing he was taller than she, the importance of which Ruth wouldn’t even admit to herself. And she was utterly amazed to learn he was a cop. To her a policeman was as nebulous and impersonal as a fire hydrant. For some “unknown” reason Ruth had been outside the sexual play of her neighbors. Her actress friend had affairs, although they both had agreed not to have men spend the night in the flat. Ruth did her share of necking, but somehow had never gone beyond that. The second time Walt kissed her was in bed and his muscular body utterly delighted and fascinated her. He was still thinking of turning pro and while she doubted if any man could hurt big Walt, the thought of his being marked or injured became her nightmare. She was flatly against his doing any more boxing.
At parties she found Walt fitted in well with her friends, that he could hold his own in bull sessions. For example, if Paris or Rome were mentioned, Walt knew the cities thoroughly, from his army days. When he casually mentioned he’d been a member of the U. S. Olympic team (which was a surprise to Ruth) he completely stopped conversation at the home of an established painter. She knew other girls began paying attention to Walt, most of them small and dainty, and she was thrilled that he had eyes only for her— as the song went.
Above all, for the first time Ruth knew a man financially capable of marriage. (Not that she’d admit that to herself, either.) Nor was that the reason she married Walt. For months she had been so much a part of Walt that when he suggested marriage it was as expected as if he’d mentioned having supper together. After they married they moved uptown, so he would be within walking distance of his precinct house. He had nearly two thousand dollars saved— mostly from his army days—and both their parents had been lavish with gifts for their only children. For a time it was exciting furnishing the two room apartment, being a housewife. When that wore off, Ruth religiously began writing every day, found an agent, and turned out a story a week. Not one sold. She learned writing for the commercial magazines wasn’t the “moronic snap” she had imagined.
Ruth tried—really tried—being friends with the other young wives, but after the first reaction they were not impressed with her being a “writer,” and she found their conversation about shopping and family politics petty. It was about this time, along with her rejections, Ruth started to feel she was in a rut, wasting her talents. She began hanging out with her old friends downtown more and more, especially when Walt was working night tours. That spring, after they had spent his month’s vacation at Cape Cod, she suggested they move downtown and Walt was willing. Ruth landed a job as a reader in a publishing house and for a while was content. When one of her stories brought a polite letter from a publisher asking if she had a novel, Ruth was in orbit and began planning her novel. She immediately quit her job and worked on an outline. The publisher said it was interesting but wanted to see a few sample chapters.
Ruth nearly had a breakdown writing and rewriting the chapters. She and Walt had their first serious fight when he suggested she try writing a novel and not the world’s greatest literature. Ruth blamed the “atmosphere” now and although it was a strain on his bank account, Walt rented a place for her on a small island which was trying terribly hard to be a second Fire Island. Ruth spent the summer attending many parties and doing little writing. That fall she took her present job, editing a trade magazine and now had a true excuse for not writing—the job “pooped” Ruth.
Whatever Walt did turned out wrong. A famous playwright and a well-known book reviewer happened to be at a party Ruth had dragged Walt to. Both men were fight fans and on learning Walt had been an amateur champ, they tried to take him over. Walt explained about Ruth and her novel and they suggested she try for a fellowship, agreed to sponsor her. For a time Ruth worked feverishly, filling out forms, retyping her chapters. When she mentioned living in Paris for the year, if she won the fellowship, Walt said he couldn’t get that much leave. She accused him of being selfish, after all, he had been to Paris. He said he didn’t want to give up his job, even if Ruth felt her book would make a fortune. They had a real battle, but Walt simply refused to think of leaving the force. He had just been promoted to a detective, third grade, for capturing two stick-up men. In a fit of rage Ruth tore up the applications and ever since had accused Walt of ruining her career. In her own mind she had neatly convinced herself she had, in fact, been awarded the fellowship.
For a time she tried drinking, but wasn’t good at it. Then, as if to spite herself, she began working like an eager-beaver on the cosmetic magazine, making it one of the top journals in its field. In a perverse way she was happy at her job because she hated it and knew Walt was unhappy because she despised and mocked her job. For the past three months they had barely talked to each other—and with Walt’s change of tours, during some weeks rarely saw the other. Ruth decided to “punish” Walt by not having any “mama-papa” stuff until Walt came crawling. But he also seemed indifferent. A month ago she met Burges and somehow he reminded Ruth of her younger days, when she was so sure of being a famous writer.
Ruth stopped to buy a bottle of soda. Entering their apartment, with her story about being at the printers carefully worked out in her mind, Ruth was surprised that Walt wasn’t there. It was a few minutes after nine thirty and she stared at the cigarette butts in the ash tray, made herself a light drink, wondered, uneasily, where Walt was. Now she was sure somebody had been with him when she had phoned, and felt a flash of hysterics as she examined the butts for lipstick traces.
The late evening paper was on top of the television set and Ruth had a hunch Walt had just left the house. But that wasn’t like him. He never went out alone. She glanced at the paper, thinking a little about Burgie, not at all sure what he meant to her. After soaking in a hot tub, she finished the paper in bed. By ten-thirty she was really worried about Walt. As Ruth was debating whether to call the squad room, he might have gone out on an emergency assignment, the phone rang. Walt said, “Glad you’re home. I’ll be right over. Oh, I’m bringing somebody with me.”
He hung up before she could ask what it was all about There was an intenseness in his voice which annoyed her. She carefully brushed her long black hair and, as an afterthought put on her best girdle and bra, to make certain she looked slim under her robe. “Now wouldn’t this be a living bitch if Walt is bringing another woman over for a showdown!” Ruth told herself. “But that’s impossible, I know Walt. Still… he might have been seeing some floozie all these months. Perhaps I misunderstood his coolness in bed. Well I can always phone Burgie. I’ll scream if Walt tries to leave me!”
Twenty minutes later Walt unlocked the door. There was a little, boyish-looking old man with him. As Walt said, “This is my wife, Ruth. Ruth, meet Tommy Cork,” she realized the man wasn’t old. It was merely his face was out of shape and at the moment full of worry.
Shaking her hand, Tommy muttered, “Pleased to meetcha, Mrs. Steiner, I…eh…” Opening his coat Walt told her, “Ruth, we’re in a kind of jam. We have a favor to ask. Something very important we want you to do. Right now. A woman’s life may depend upon it.”
Leaving the steak house, Tommy headed west. At the corner he glanced at a window clock. It was a few minutes after eight and the window happened to be part of a bar. Knowing May didn’t come on until around ten o’clock, he decided to have a shot. He needed one.
Over his third belt he told himself, “Man, when you get a nutty fight fan, you got the tops in being dumb. Arno takes out a policy on me, as a favor, and Al starts yelling murder. If I hadn’t put the lid on him hard just now, Al would have ruined the works for me. For crying out loud, the way Al reasons, if Arno decided to buy me a tux it would mean he was thinking of marrying me. ‘Cancel the policy and see what Arno does.’ What would they expect Mr. Brewer, or anybody else, to do but throw me out? I got it made and no creep is going to spoil my last chance….Now why am I calling Alvin a creep? He’s been plenty decent to me, give me what breaks he can. That cop, that Walt, he was something.
“If I packed his weight, I bet I’d be working at least once a month. And with my savvy—most heavies don’t know how to move off their flat feet. Sure can’t figure Walt for not turning pro, getting in a couple big paydays. Being an amateur was the good life. Really kid stuff but I sure felt I had the world by the hairs then. Seventy-two bouts—I damn near had more watches than the Swiss navy; if I hadn’t hocked them with the promoters. And those bootleg fights, hop into some beat-up car and spend a week fighting in Troy, Albany, Toronto, come back with a pocket full of bucks. I don’t get it, even the medal chasers can’t get a fight today. TV killed off the amateurs, too. And I figured TV would be a shot in the arm for… Aw, what am I stewing about? I’m set. I’ll make some good fights now, I’m feeling strong, ready to go. Always knew my Irish luck wouldn’t let me down. That Al.
“Good thing I didn’t blow my cap trying to calm him down. Got to keep in good with these TV guys. They’re as important now as the mob boys. Well, guess I’ll stop with this shot, really have to keep in shape. I’ll go see May now— only get tanked if I hang around here. Another thing I like about Arno—he don’t mind if I take a belt now and then. Yeah, I’ll see May now, show her I’m on my way, all togged out. She hasn’t seen me look this sharp in years. Even if she isn’t working yet, I’ll find out where she’s rooming and…. Hey, that was Walt looking in here! I hope that dick isn’t tailing me.”
Going to the door, Tommy watched Walt Steiner walk on down the street. He decided the detective was merely passing by. He straightened his tae and overcoat, inspecting himself in the bar mirror, quite pleased with what he saw, then started for the diner.
Mac, the partner on duty, was the baker—although despite the sign behind the counter, all the cakes and bread weren’t “baked on the premises.” It depended on how drunk Mac was. Tommy walked in and sat on a counter stool. Over a cup of coffee he asked Bertha, “What time does May Cork come on?”
“You mean what day will she be back, if she comes back,” Bertha said.
“What? Is she unwell?”
Bertha giggled. “Unwell? Yeah, guess you might call her unwell at that. All the gals I ever seen get beaten up weren’t exactly well.”
“May’s been beaten up?” Tommy said, jumping to his feet. “What is this?”
Bertha examined his rough face. “Who you, mister?”
“Her husband. Where’s May?”
“Who knows? In hiding, I guess. I’d be. I only hope she gets all this settled before the month’s over so I can go to California and…”
“What’s going on here?” Tommy asked loudly. “Where is May?”
Mac came over, asked Bertha, “Any trouble?”
“This guy is asking for May. I told him…”
“You run your flabby mouth too much.” Mac turned to Tommy. “What’s all this to you?”
“Where’s my wife? What’s happened to May?”
“I don’t know where she is. I don’t know nothing, see? I ain’t sticking my nose into nothing. You say you’re her husband but…”
“I am!” Tommy snapped. “And stop stalling me.”
Mac shrugged. “Okay, maybe you are her old man. And then maybe you’re a strong arm punk sent around to work her over,” he said, his voice mild. Mac was a large fat man, with an alcoholic’s indifference to fear. He asked Bertha, “You know May’s husband?”
“Never saw him. But she told me he was a pug. This one sure fits the part What a puss! I seen the husband once on TV.”
“Then you know who I am!” Tommy shouted.
“I was pretty bug-eyed then. Besides, this guy had so many gloves hitting his face, I couldn’t see much. Anyway, I don’t even know May wants to see you. I hear the last time she saw her ever-loving, she had to hit him. I always say a gal…”
Tommy slapped the counter. “The both of you cut the chatter. Just tell me where she is!”
“What you making all this noise for?” Mac asked.
“I’m asking where my wife is and you’d damn well better tell me before I knock your ears off!”
“That kind of talk don’t impress me. I got nothing more to say.” Mac started toward the cash register, walking casually, where he kept an unloaded automatic.
“I’ll impress your fat face with a…!”
Bertha rested all of her bosom on the counter as she said, “Come on, cut the rough stuff and listen to me, May’s husband. Mac’s only a good-natured rummy. He don’t know a damn thing. None of us do. That’s a fact.”
Yanking out his wallet, Tommy held up his plastic-covered boxing license. “Read it! Tommy Cork. That’s my picture there. Now you believe me?”
Bertha glanced at the license, also measured the thickness of the wallet. “For sure, you were never strong on looks, even when this snap was taken. What Mac was trying to say is, So what if you are her husband? I mean, not only don’t we know anything, but maybe you’re working for them too. May was all wrong to start this stuff in here, and we don’t want no trouble.”
Tommy shoved the wallet back into his hip pocket. Trying to hold his temper in, he said, “Look, Miss, I been out of town for a while, training. First chance I get to see May, you start giving me double-talk. What did May start? What trouble is she in?”
“She began picking up numbers. Butch warned her not to start that here. The way I hear things, she was holding out. But May had bad luck. One of the numbers she held out hit for a buck. Naturally the player yelled. So the boys found out she was stealing and the syndicate man slapped her around. Now we don’t know where she’s been hiding out That’s a fact. I haven’t seen her in two days. Maybe Butch knows something, but he won’t tell. Even though he’s sore at her for bringing the syndicate in here, involving the restaurant still he likes May—not the way you think—just likes…”
“He’ll tell me! Who’s Butch?”
“One of the bosses. Guy who was on the last time you were here.” Bertha sighed. “Look, I keep telling you, even if Butch knows where she is, and I ain’t sure he does, he won’t tell anybody.”
“I’ll call the cops.”
Bertha gave him another sigh. “That would be the best way of making everybody clam up. Butch won’t talk, for May’s own good.” She examined Tommy’s clothes for a second. “You going to give May the dough for my apartment?”
“Right now all I care about is finding my wife!”
“Sure, I understand. Luck, Mr. Cork. I hope you find her okay, and she’s like six o’clock with the syndicate—straight up and down. I hope also she gets that one hundred and fifty bucks up, so I can make California. Now that’s about all the hoping I can do.” Bertha walked away to wait on a new customer.
“You know where she was rooming, before… this?”
“You’re a bright one,” the fat blonde called over her shoulder. “If you’re in hiding, the last place you’d be is in your old room.”
“Yeah,” Tommy muttered. As he started for the door, Mac called softly from behind the cash register, “This ain’t no mission. We charge for our Java. One dime.”
“You sure say nothing for a slob who talks too much,” Tommy said, throwing the dime on the counter. Outside, he breathed in deeply of the cold night air and wondered what to do. It didn’t sound possible—May mixed up with the numbers racket. Why in the old days, she wouldn’t even go to the races with him. If she found a nickel on the street she would insist upon putting it in the church poor box.
For a half hour Tommy walked through the markets, the side streets, not really expecting to see May, but not knowing what else to do. He couldn’t go to the police, if May was really in this. Then he stopped at another stool joint, phoned Walt Steiner, told him what had happened.
Walt was just taking off his shirt—having decided to stay home—when the phone rang. After listening to Tommy he told him, “Look, if you want to make any charges, go to the local police station and report your wife missing, then…”
“I don’t want charges or reports. I want to find my wife!” Tommy said, almost crying over the phone. “The blonde said May’s been beaten up. She may be hurt, needing me. Before, we… well… we were living apart; but what I mean, she was not in danger or hurt. Walt, I don’t know what to do. But you have a badge, you’re a cop. Can’t you help me?”
Walt hesitated. He had learned long ago not to volunteer. Throw your badge around and it could easily bounce back in your face. Still, he could feel the real grief in Tommy’s voice, and anything was better than moping around, waiting for Ruth. Only because it was something to do, Walt asked Tommy where he was, told him he’d be there in twenty minutes.
When he met Tommy a half hour later, Walt was sorry he’d come and told Tommy, “Before we start anything you have to remember once I step into this as a police officer… that… if your wife is mixed up in any numbers deal… Well, when the wagon comes, everybody goes. Understand?”
“Just find her,” Tommy said, thinking, What’s wrong with this big joker? If he knew anything about May, he’d have to know she’s too sweet to be mixed up in anything shady. Not May!
“Okay, let’s go to the diner. Let me do the talking,” Walt said, shivering slightly with the cold night air. He also knew the numbers syndicate was real big-time, far too powerful for one cop to buck, even an honest one. He almost wished Tommy would argue, give him an excuse to back out of this.
When they reached the diner Bertha was kidding with one of two coffee-and-cake customers. Mac was kneading a pan of dough, having had his usual sampling of “cooking sherry” some minutes before. He gave Tommy and Walt a sloppy, loose grin, told Walt, “Absolutely no point in asking who you are. It’s all over your face. What can I do for you, officer?”
“Where’s May Cork?”
Mac grinned, as if Walt had told him a joke. “I can answer that one easily and truthfully. I don’t know.”
“When did you last see her?”
“Oh, maybe I saw May last month. Once, I think,” Mac said, the silly grin still on his wide face.
Walt glanced at Tommy, annoyed, then asked Mac, “Doesn’t she work here?”
Mac nodded, working on his dough again. “Sure, she worked here. But you asked when was the last time I saw her. As it happens I generally knock off about a half hour before May’s due on, so…”
“Cut the coy crap,” Walt said, putting muscle into his voice. “I want some straight answers and I want them fast!”
Mac made a slight bow, his hands still in the white dough. “I always work with the police. Like I told him,” he jerked his big head toward Tommy, “if I knew where May was, I’d tell you. All I heard was May was beaten up. I don’t even know that for a fact. I didn’t see it. I only heard about it. I can only…”
“Was she taking numbers?”
Mac looked sad. “So I’ve heard. However, officer, I want you to know that if May was doing it—and I said if—she was doing it solely on her own, without our knowledge. In this eating establishment, we don’t allow gambling or solicit…”
“You serve beer here?” Walt cut in.
“Sure. Bottles only. You want some?”
“I don’t want any beer and unless I get some real information out of you, nobody else is going to buy any suds here, either. I’ll request the state board to revoke your beer license—something about racketeers and unsavory characters hanging about.”
The smile fled Mac’s puffy face. For the first time Tommy was impressed by Walt, was glad he’d let Walt carry the conversation, as he’d been told. He glanced up at Walt’s grim face, which didn’t hint that Walt was merely bluffing. Hell, this wasn’t even near his squad area.
“Now you guys wait just a fat minute,” Mac said. “I’m not holding out on you. Told you all I know. Don’t see why I’m suddenly in the middle of this thing. Like I said, I hardly see—saw—May. You speak to my partner, Butch. This is all his baby and I ain’t going to get my feet wet. He’ll be here in an hour or so. Comes on around eleven-thirty.”
Walt asked, “Where’s he live?”
“Two blocks east. Nineteen Rand Street. Morris, Fred Morris. Talk to him, let him say what he wants. He’s the big-hearted slob protecting May. I told him… well, never mind.”
“What’s ‘never mind’ mean?”
“It means nothing. I told him to keep our noses out of it. She wanted to mess with these digit punks, then it’s her business and she had to take what she got. We…”
“Got? What did May get?” Tommy suddenly asked, leaping toward Mac. Walt practically lifted Tommy off the ground as he turned him toward the door, said, “Take it slow. Let’s see this Morris fellow.”
“Fred Morris, the third, no less,” Mae called out happily, adding for his own benefit, “And you can tell him to quit lecturing me about my drinking. Ruining the business he says and he…”
Butch always went through a simple ritual before he started for the night shift at the diner. He’d sit in an old worn leather easy chair and carefully read the evening paper. He read nearly everything in the paper, including the want ads. The reading wasn’t part of the ritual, but sitting was very much the ritual, and an important one, since he would be on his feet for the balance of the night, and part of the morning when he bought meat. These were by far the most enjoyable few hours of each day because his wife was generally in bed by then, and he could read in peace without hearing the TV.
He was angry when the doorbell cut into his quiet. His anger reached a boil as Walt flashed his badge. When they asked about May, Butch said, “I haven’t nothing to say.”
Butch was standing by his open door and Walt asked, “Can we come in and talk this over?”
“Do your talking right here.”
“Now Mr. Morris,” Walt said softly, “I understand you’re trying to protect Mrs. Cork. That’s fine, but don’t you think she’d be in safer hands if she was under police protection?”
“No! Look, May ain’t nothing to me, but she’s a good hard-working woman, steady, and I don’t stand for her getting the wrong end of the stick. You don’t con me. How do I know you’re not goons for the numbers boys? And don’t wave that badge at me, that don’t make no difference, you can still be working with them. Hell, numbers is being played all over the city and they couldn’t do it without the help of the police! I don’t know nothing about May.”
“That’s a hell of a thing to say about the police force. I know your type, talk us down in one breath and be yelling the loudest for the police when there’s trouble,” Walt said, his face flushed. Although this was another sharp bit sticking in the back of his mind, he knew if he fooled with the numbers syndicate he could easily be busted. Their pay-off went right to the top, all the way up to City Hall.
Butch said, “Sure I’m saying it, but that isn’t what makes it a bad thing. It’s being true makes it sad. Look, I’m not out to be a hero, or hunting trouble. That’s police business, you run it how you see best. Well, we got us a good restaurant business, and we put in a lot of sweat and varicose veins to make it that. But my ancestors battled the Indians and I sure ain’t going to help a decent church-going woman like May get hurt no more.”
“She’s my wife!” Tommy said.
“I heard you say that before—when she had to sock you. You didn’t see her from one brace of months to another. I’m busy resting, have a long night ahead of me, so…”
“You might have a longer night ahead of you in the station house,” Walt began, “unless you act right and….”
Butch cut in with, “I come from one of the oldest families in America. You think I don’t know my rights? You running me in? For what? Is this an official visit? Except for flashing that tin, you haven’t even identified yourself as a policeman!”
“I’m a detective asking if you know the whereabouts of May Cork.”
“I don’t know. Now the both of you get out of my doorway. The next time you come calling, let me see a warrant!”
Tommy was surprised to hear Walt mutter, “You’ll be in real trouble if anything happens to Mrs. Cork. All this talk about oldest family and you don’t think the police…” Butch shut the door in their faces. For a moment he leaned against the closed door, shaking a little with fright, but then a feeling of righteous indignation calmed his fears. Besides, he always had a blind dislike for cops.
On the other side of the door, as they stood in the dim hallway, Tommy said, “I should have flattened him.”
“That would have been a real third strike,” Walt said, feeling slightly ridiculous, and depressed.
“From the way he was acting, wouldn’t even let us in the apartment, I’d give odds May’s in there!”
Walt shook his head. “I don’t think so. If she was, she certainly heard you shooting off your mouth… and she didn’t show herself.”
“Okay, then what do we do now? I thought with your badge…?”
“My badge isn’t a magic wand! You’re making dummy-talk. Even if she was in there, and if I believe what you’ve told me, she isn’t being held against her will. It’s not a crime for a woman to refuse to see her husband.”
“Naw! May wants to see me. No matter what we went through, it was never like that. She’d always want to see me. Or me see her. That Morris knew something. I ought to go back there and beat it out of him.”
Walt’s feeling of depression went deeper. “Talk sense. Then I’d have to collar you. That would be a big help to May.”
“But maybe Morris would say something first? Okay, we’ll play it your way. What do we do beside standing here and talking to each other?”
The “we” hit Walt like a dull slap in the face. He was annoyed—with himself, at Tommy, and at Ruth. If they had a normal relationship, and she’d been at home with him, Walt would never have gone off on this wild goose chase. The men in the squad room would laugh at him, working on his own time. But mostly he was annoyed with this wiseguy, Morris. Walt had run up against this type of citizen before— lumping cops with thugs. He asked, “Tommy, haven’t you any idea where May’d go? No relatives or friends?”
“Naw. Only relative she has is a cousin out in Tacoma, Washington. All my folks have been dead long ago. As for May’s cousin, Helen, she hasn’t seen her in years. They send Christmas and Easter cards to each other. You’re the detective. Isn’t there anything you can do?”
“Dammit, stop talking like a fool. Let me think before I slap your mouth shut!”
Tommy shook his head. If his eyes grew hard, his voice was friendly as he said, “Now you’re talking like a dummy, Walt. You have plenty of weight on me but there never was an amateur yet who could take a real pro. I… I didn’t mean to steam you, and I’m sure glad you’re trying to help. But you can understand how I feel. What the hell am I still fighting for, staying with the game. Who did I ever stop a punch for, if it wasn’t for my May? Sure, I ain’t been no model husband, but I have been in there trying all the time, best I can. Now, when I finally get my break, this has to happen.”
Walt stared at Tommy’s beaten face for a second, shocked to realize Cork was probably about his own age, or a few years older, despite looking like an old man. (He didn’t even consider that Tommy might be younger than he.) “May’s cousin out in Tacoma, when was the last time they saw each other?”
“What’s she…? At least about fifteen years ago, I guess. Helen is married and settled out there. They exchange greeting cards now, that’s all. About the only mail May gets, so she’s always showing the cards around.”
Walt nodded slowly. “May must have shown Morris, the blonde waitress, those cards. Wait here for a moment,” he said, going into a drugstore. Walt was surprised and happy to find Ruth home. Then, as he and Tommy rode the bus to his place, Walt got all the dope Tommy could recall about Helen.
When they entered the apartment and he could tell Ruth had been home for some time, Walt was ashamed of what he’d been thinking all evening. Ruth looked positively beautiful in her robe, Walt thought, as he introduced Tommy and said, “You see, Tommy’s wife has disappeared and, while it isn’t a police matter yet, we want to find her before she gets into any more trouble. She may be hurt. I’ve been fishing around but I think my badge frightens her boss, makes him clam up. Might be a sort of adventure for you if…
“Wouldn’t be no real trouble for you, ma’am,” Tommy said. “I mean no chance of you getting hurt.”
“What is it you want me to do?” Ruth asked, almost giddy with relief that Walt hadn’t brought another woman home.
“May, that’s Tommy’s wife, has only one relative, a cousin out in Tacoma. I thought that after we fill you in with the dope on this cousin Helen, you could go to the diner where May used to work, pose as the cousin. Say you just came in, or you’re passing through, and wanted to take May back to the Coast with you. I think the boss will tell you where May’s hiding. As Tommy said, no risk—we’ll never be far away. I realize it’s sudden and… Ruth, will you help Tommy?”
Lying across the narrow iron bed in the dumpy little room, still wearing her soiled gray waitress dress, May was sick and frightened. The skin around both her badly bloodshot eyes was a deep purple. The inside of her mouth was tender and her ribs felt sore. The actual beating outside the diner hadn’t hurt. She’d been far too frightened for pain. Burt had punched May about the face so fast she couldn’t believe she was being hit, then sent her to the sidewalk with a blow to where he thought her breasts were. May had rolled out of the way, scrambled to her feet and fled. After she had phoned Butch and he’d brought her fifteen dollars, she had rented this room. But in her panic May forgot to buy food. Now she was afraid to go out to eat. As she was afraid to wash her underthings and dress. The thought of being naked in a strange room terrified her.
Faint from hunger, May was sick with shame. The Good Lord has punished me, she thought for doing evil. Numbers are evil. Holding out on poor Shorty was cheating him—evil. God is my witness He knows I never did wrong before. Not this kind of evil. But then, one time is enough! What can I do now, without my clothes, money, or a job? God must know I only sinned because it was our last chance for a decent life. Lord, Lord, please let my face heal fast so I can at least go for food without attracting too much attention… maybe find Tom. I feel so unclean. If I could only get back to my room and pack, take the few dollars I have, but Burt will be sure to be watching for me there. Lord, don’t let them toss my things out on the sidewalk Maybe Butch will come and…
There was a soft knock on the door. May sat up on the bed, body tight with fear. The knock was repeated but she didn’t move. A woman’s voice asked, “May? May, this is your cousin Helen from Tacoma. May, do you hear me?”
“Helen?” May said, running toward the door, thinking, this is a miracle. Helen is here! But at the door caution caught her, held her hand on the lock. “How did you find me?”
“I came to New York today and Butch—Mr. Morris—told me where you are. May, please let me in. Everything is going to be all right.”
May hesitated, and suddenly she felt too weak and sick to care what happened to her. That Helen should find her like this! Opening the door a crack, May saw a tall, well-dressed woman smiling at her. The woman had a large face with a big mouth and almost heavy nose, dark eyes. The woman was alone. The only time May had seen Helen was when they were both nine years old. She said dully, doubtfully, “You’re not my cousin Helen, are you?”
The woman pushed the door open, stepped inside, and closed the door. She was even taller than Bertha. She placed an arm around May, her face showing horror when she had a good look at May’s bruises. She said, “No, Mrs. Cork. But don’t be alarmed. I’m the wife of a detective. He’s downstairs with your Tommy. We’ve been looking all over town for you, to help you. I had to use this ruse to reach you.”
May began to weep. Ruth walked her to the bed and they both sat down. Ruth said, “Everything’s going to be all right now. You’re safe.” Looking at the scrawny little woman, the beaten face, Ruth asked herself, “How could any man ever love… this? Even marry her? She’s just a plain bag of bones. Although really not as old as she looks. Why, probably she isn’t forty.”
May leaned against her, sniffling and weeping like a child, and compared to Ruth, not much bigger than a little girl. After a moment, Ruth said, “I’ll send Tommy up to…”
“Oh no! I can’t let him see me like this. Oh, I’ve done a terrible thing.”
“Nothing really very bad,” Ruth said softly, thinking, Now here’s a real character for my book, if only I knew what makes her tick. Why do I feel so detached? I’ll never understand people this way. “May, Tommy and my husband are going to take you to a better place, a safe place, until all this is straightened out. Then…”
“I can’t let Tommy see me like this.”
“That’s being silly. He’s been out of his mind looking for you. And my husband is with him. I told you, he’s a detective, and a good one. He won’t let anything happen to you.”
“Is he going to arrest me?”
“No. Walt is in this as a friend of Tommy’s. Trust me, and don’t worry.”
May shook her head and for a moment there was only silence in the room, and the sharp smell of bug powder. Ruth said, “You must let us help you.”
May said faintly, “Can you get me something to eat? I’m so weak.”
“Of course.” Ruth stood up. Suddenly, she said aloud, “You mean you’re really hungry?”
“I haven’t had anything to eat for over a day.” As Ruth reached the door, May added, “Please don’t let Tommy come up, yet.”
“I’m just going down to get coffee and whatever else I can find. Now, you’ll let me in again, won’t you?”
Downstairs, Ruth told Walt and Tommy, “Get a container of coffee, rolls—anything. She’s very hungry, still a bit shocked. And don’t you go up there, yet, Mr. Cork.”
“Is she hurt?” Tommy asked.
“Well, no. Naturally, she’s upset. Get her some food and let her talk to me for a while. She’ll be okay.”
“But…?” Tommy began.
Walt cut him off with, “She’s going hungry while we gab here. Must be a bar or coffee pot around. You buy some food. I’ll wait here with Ruth. Need money?”
“I have money,” Tommy said quietly, trotting off down the street.
Walt looked at Ruth. “You look kind of pale yourself. Is she beaten up?”
Ruth nodded as she lit a cigarette, leaning against the entrance of what, perhaps half a century ago, had been an imposing brownstone and was now a cheap rooming-house. Ruth shook herself, as if something might be crawling on her. “Both her eyes are blackened. She’s such a pathetic little thing. But so is he. What do we do now?”
“First we hear what she has to say. Then we’ll hide her out in some hotel.”
“Want to take her to my sister’s across the river? Ann loves to do good and… Is May in any real danger?”
“If they found her they might work her over again, but I doubt if they’re going to look too hard. Certainly, not out of the state.”
“What did she actually do?”
“Held out a dollar bet from the numbers mob.”
“They beat her for a lousy buck?”
Walt looked at Ruth as if she was a child. “It sounds funny, but it’s the principle of the thing. They can’t let anybody hold out a cent on them, or they’re through. Listen, thanks for doing all this, Ruth.” He touched her shoulder with his hand.
Ruth turned away, blew out a smoke ring. “It’s… interesting. Nice of you to help Tommy. Was he a famous pug?”
“No. But he’s had over two hundred amateur and pro bouts. He’s…”
“His face looks like his mother was frightened by a boxing glove.”
“Can’t you ever stop with the clever dialogue?” Walt asked. “I had less than twenty amateur bouts, all told. Two hundred fights isn’t nothing to joke about or…”
“Isn’t anything to joke about?”
Tommy came running back, holding a paper bag. He said, “I can’t understand why May won’t see me. I’ll take this up…”
Ruth took the bag. “She’s hungry, upset, doesn’t want you to see her like this. Just wait a while.” Starting up the stairs with the bag of food, Ruth stared at the worn, wooden steps, thought, Here I am in the middle of the night, bringing food to a beaten, hungry woman in this stinking fire-trap. What more could any writer ask? If I don’t get a story out of this, I’ll turn in my typewriter.
Ruth sat on the bed while May stood, wolfed down the coffee and two sandwiches. She’d said, “Messy to eat on a bed. And it’s bad luck.”
“If I had my wits about me, I’d have brought up a drink.”
“I don’t touch that stuff.”
When Ruth lit another cigarette, offered her one, May said she didn’t smoke. Ruth opened her chic, fur-trimmed coat, finished the cigarette. May was eating slower now, chewing the food, her thin face almost smiling. She said, “My, a steak couldn’t have tasted better. Food makes all the difference, doesn’t it? I feel so much better. One reason I liked being a waitress, I almost felt as if I was doing good, helping people eat.”
“Tommy bought the food. You’ll have to see him, Mrs…. May. He wanted to dash right up here. You should see him. What’s a black eye between husband and wife?”
“It isn’t my face, Lord knows I never was a beauty.” May smoothed a fold in her skirt, seemed to absent-mindedly caress it. “Funny the kind of things you think about. I mean, even at a time like this, the trouble I’m in—I should be thinking about a hundred things and not about the time Tommy and I were first married. You see, I was brought up very strict by my aunt. In our neighborhood there were only two kinds of girls. You know what I mean.”
May suddenly blushed and looked so young and girlish, Ruth wanted to cry. May said, “I don’t even know why I’m telling you this, except I was thinking about it today, sort of running it over and over in my mind. Just now, when I said I was never a beauty. On our wedding night I… I… simply couldn’t bring myself to undress. Tommy understood so well, that I wasn’t afraid of him, but scared of the whole… idea. He turned off the lights in the hotel room and I was numb with… well… fright is about the right word. Then he began undressing me, his hands so easy, and I started to weep. Everything he did was so gentle and considerate, but I still cried. When I was naked he turned on the lights. I covered my face with my hands, I was that ashamed. So Tommy he pulled my hands away and says, ‘Look at yourself in that mirror, May. Right how there’s no difference between you and Mrs. Rockefeller. Do you know that? Except you’re prettier—to me.’ Of course we were poorer than church mice but what he said sounded so nice, so fine, I relaxed, even giggled. And… Gee, I shouldn’t be talking like this. Poor Tommy, how can I ever explain to him what I’ve done?”
“Come on now, after all, what did you actually do, steal a dollar? That’s nothing. We all have…”
“But it is so bad. Tommy and I had our differences, most of them forced on us by lack of money… and other things. But certain things we never had to worry about—like either of us being unfaithful or doing anything crooked. That’s why it will be hard for me to explain how I became mixed up with the number crooks. Big Burt had suggested to me a couple times before that I should pick up numbers for him. But I wouldn’t even listen, hear him out. Then… You see, I found an apartment I could get if I had a hundred and fifty to buy the furniture. I pleaded with Tommy to quit the ring, get any kind of job. With an apartment I felt we could both start living again. We’ve been apart for over a year. It’s the shabby living in cheap rooms that spoils a marriage. Do you have an apartment? A home?”
“Yes, we have a flat.”
“Then you must know what I mean, how necessary a place of your own is. I felt if we didn’t get this apartment, we were really finished. I had to raise the money before Bertha sold the apartment to somebody else. Nobody I could borrow that kind of money from. On what I make, I’d never be able to save fast enough. So, God forgive me, I agreed to take numbers. I was to get ten per cent of what I collected and if somebody hits, one of your customers, they usually give the runner another ten per cent. I was sure I’d make a lot of money—say, ten dollars a night.” May smoothed her skirt again. “But it takes time before people get to know about it, and so I couldn’t be too open. Butch would have fired me. And rightly so. I did make a few dollars, and then several nights ago I clean forgot to give Burt some of the money I’d collected. Honest, it slipped my mind.”
“I’m certain it did.”
“You know the odds are six hundred to one and I was in a sweat. Suppose some of the numbers I didn’t give in won? But they didn’t and Big Burt never knew the difference. So then I thought—God have mercy—if I could hold out a few dollars a night, take a chance… well, in a month, I’d have the hundred and fifty dollars for the apartment. Well, poor Shorty James hit. Oh dear, he said it was the first time he’d won in over two years. And I hadn’t turned in his dollar. Now he’s out all that money. And Heaven only knows what Big Burt will do to me if he ever catches…” May started to weep again.
Ruth said sharply, “Stop it, all this Shorty really lost was one dollar. Don’t be afraid, we’ll find a place where you can hide, maybe out of town, and you can get another job.”
“But you don’t see, I’ll never be able to take Bertha’s apartment now! It’s the end of Tommy and me.”
“Nonsense, there are other apartments,” Ruth said, thinking. She said, “nobody I could borrow that kind of money from….” A hundred and fifty dollars—and she made it sound like a million…
“Where? For a whole year I been looking hard for one— that we could afford. A roof over our heads is important as food. I’ve messed this up so. It’s a wonder Tommy sticks to me.”
“Stop blaming yourself. As you said, if Tommy had taken a job…. I heard he’s had plenty of fights. Doesn’t he make any money in the ring?”
“Not any more. He’s way past his prime. He shouldn’t be fighting. Seeing him hurt is another of my nightmares. But I can’t tell him that.”
“Perhaps we can all talk to him. The first thing is for you to pull yourself together, get out of here and into a safer place. Then we’ll convince Tommy to…”
May shook her head, ran her sleeve over her wet face. “He has to realize it himself. It’s wrong to tell a husband what to do. Oh, I found that out.”
Ruth grinned. “Honey, the idea that a wife is a man’s pet servant is so old-fashioned that…”
“No, no, you don’t understand,” May said, her voice suddenly clear as she looked up at Ruth. “Although, being happily married, you must know this. What I meant is, marriage is a partnership, and one partner has no right to press the other too much. Believe me, the girls I work with, they all really want to have a good marriage, despite their fast talk. That song about a good man is hard to find—it’s the truth. Tommy is a good man. Why when I married him I became a somebody for the first time in my life. Even before —I was known as Irish Tommy’s girl. People would point me out on the street. Tommy was a famous man in our neighborhood. It was all so lovely in the beginning. We were living pretty well. Tommy began bringing home five or six hundred dollars a fight, sometimes fighting twice a month. When he was in training we didn’t sleep together. Gee, Mrs….”
“Ruth, you must think I’m awful talking so much about sex. But a fighter’s wife is… like I said, we’d be apart and then it would be a honeymoon all over again. I hate boxing, but I did get a thrill the few times I was at ringside, seeing how clever and sure my husband was, listening to the crowd yell for him. Everybody said Tommy would be champ soon, even the newspapers. I ruined that for him, too.”
“What’s with you, May, blaming yourself for everything?”
“It’s true, it was my fault. When I became pregnant and they found the spot on my lungs, the doctor told me not to have the baby. I was only in my second month. Even my priest… well, never mind that. But I insisted, went ahead and had the boy. It was a baby boy even though it was a still-birth. I nearly died having the kid, my lungs went to pieces. I had to go to this fancy sanitarium. Tommy insisted upon the best for me. We needed a few thousand dollars in a big hurry. Tommy went in with Robinson.”
“Of course you don’t understand about boxing. Tommy was smart, wouldn’t let any manager rush him for a fast dollar. Robinson was the greatest fighter of our day. Boxing is like any other job, it takes time to learn your trade. Perhaps in a few years Tommy would have been ready for Robinson. He wasn’t then and he knew it. And his fierce pride wouldn’t let him put up a cautious fight. He tore into Robinson. Tommy was beaten so badly…. I thanked God I was in a coma before and especially after the fight. My Tom never got over that licking. His reflexes were mined and… why, he was urinating blood for a week afterwards.
“Even then, he might have made it if he’d taken a long rest. Tom had to keep on fighting, my doctor bills were piling up. As I told you, he’s a proud man, wouldn’t have taken charity even if we could have got some. He was Irish Cork, the contender. When the hospital finally released me, about a year later, I found out the truth. Tom was finished, fighting for a few dollars on his former reputation. He was broke. I insisted upon helping, working. That was our first separation. He walked out when I took a factory job. But I couldn’t get any other work and it almost killed me, but we were hungry. Since then we have a reunion, then part, makeup and part again—living in dreary rooms which made us both mad all the time. Tom can’t face up to the fact he’s through as a boxer. He’s never lost hope, still talks about his luck changing, bringing home a big purse.
“You know, I was downright glad when the army called him. I thought it would help him—resting, eating right. If I’d said anything, us being married and all, they would have turned him down. But I kept quiet. It didn’t work. He was twenty-five then and the two years he lost…. He should never have returned to the ring when he came out. But he had his hopes, faith in his luck, and boxing is all he knows. It’s a mean dirty business, but it was his trade and I had no right pushing him to do what I wanted. These last years, I don’t know how we existed. That’s why I took numbers. I thought if we had a place of our own, if we both worked, we could live a little, at least have a few hours of home life every day. I mean, I’m only twenty-eight. Tommy’s thirty two—we still have most of our life ahead of us. Trouble is, when you have it good, you don’t know it.”
“Maybe,” Ruth said, lighting another cigarette, hoping her amazement didn’t show on her face. This wreck of a woman only twenty-eight! “But don’t blame yourself, none of us can tell what the future will turn up. Even if you hadn’t become ill… say Tommy had gone on to be a champ, pugs always seem to end up poor anyway.”
“Not rock-bottom-poor. Tommy was never a playboy. If he had been a champ, as he should have been, no matter what else happened, he’d have been a success. He’d have been champion and they couldn’t take that from him. Even if he lost his money, he’d be fronting for a restaurant or a bar now, not… Most times now he’s on the bum, actually hungry. That’s why he never came around to see me much, he was ashamed….”
Ruth crushed her cigarette on the floor. She had this feeling she simply couldn’t stand hearing another word of this wretched tale, interrupted May with “Look, this is no time for words. Tommy is waiting downstairs, in the cold. Supposing you wash up and I’ll send Tommy up here. Meantime, my husband and I will make arrangements. I think you can live at my sister’s for a time. She’s across the river, out of town. Has a house full of kids, so she’ll be glad to have a built-in baby sitter. You’ll be safe there. Okay?”
“Of course. Anything you say. God bless you… Ruth.” May started for the door, then stopped. “I didn’t have time to pick up a washcloth or a towel… and they don’t have any paper here. Can you spare a hankie I can wash with?”
Ruth gave her a package of tissues, a comb, and her lipstick. When May returned she looked a little better. Ruth said she’d send Tommy up and as she left the room, she saw May stoop, pick up the butt Ruth had left on the floor.
Downstairs, when she told Tommy not to argue with May, he said, “Argue? What are you talking about? All I want is to see her, hold her,” and rushed up the steps.
Trembling slightly with the cold air, Ruth thought, How odd, the sincere eagerness of this homely little man for his drab, plain, beaten woman. Or is it odd? I’m getting to have the patronizing, true slick story mind—only the beautiful, the perfect, can love.
Walt, stamping his big feet to warm them, glanced at her, asked, “What are you smiling about? What’s the joke?”
“That’s what I was wondering. Not what the joke is but rather who the jokers in the deck are. We only realize the—”
“Turn philosophical some other time,” Walt said curtly. “We have to phone your sister and I’ll see if I can borrow a car.”
As they walked toward a lighted window,—a bar,—and a phone, Ruth said, “Tommy is such a quaint character. So pathetic.”
“Somebody might be trying to murder ‘quaint’ Tommy, because he is so pathetic.”
It was past one-thirty when Walt and Ruth dropped Tommy off at his hotel. He was thoroughly confused, had been ever since he’d taken May in his arms, began crying as he kissed her braised face. When she told him why she had taken the money, Tommy had merely said, “Honey, I never knew the apartment meant so much to you. Look, if you want, I’ll get a job, become a dishwasher, do like you say. I mean, soon… if anything goes wrong between me and this new manager. Like if he drops me. May, I haven’t had the chance to tell you. I have a great manager, a real live one. I’m in good shape, staying at a fine hotel and eating three times a day, and this manager foots the bill. Isn’t that something?”
She pulled away, looked him over. “You do look sharp. Tommy, do you think—now—you can get up the money for the apartment?”
“Well, I don’t get much actual green. Arno—my manager —he pays the tabs and all I get is a few bills for spending. Listen, forget the apartment, the first thing we have…”
“I can’t forget the apartment!”
He pulled her to him, gently ran his fingers over the purplish skin under her eyes. “May, what’s the use of having an apartment if we can’t live in it? We have to get square with the numbers punks before thinking of anything else. For true, how much did the guy hit for with you?”
Tommy whistled into her graying hair. “Could be worse— like a five dollar hit. A buck—means we have to raise six hundred fish. Know what. I’ll go see the guy tonight, explain that we’ll pay off, fast as we can. That way, he won’t be sore and the numbers mob won’t have anything against you any more. Yeah, at least let him know we’re paying off. What’s the player’s name and where can I find him?”
“They call him Shorty. Shorty James. He works in the icebox at the big meat house down the block and across from the diner. Oh Tom, how can we raise so much money?”
“Right this minute I don’t know, but I’ll ante it up—in time. Ill get these numbers jerks off your back, then we’ll see about the apartment. Say, if I can get up six hundred, no reason why I can’t pony up another hundred and fifty.”
“Oh, Tom, do you think you can?” May said, kissing him wildly.
Now, as Tommy left the hotel, buttoning his coat against the night cold, he made sure Walt and Ruth had driven off the block, then headed for the market. Tommy wasn’t thinking of the six hundred dollars, but only of May’s kiss. He had never been a passionate man, hunger and the constant training grind had drained his excess energy, and desire needs fuel. The truth was, he rarely thought of sex. But May’s kisses had aroused in him memories of their early marriage nights—his delight at the way her delicate little body would come alive, roaring and demanding, sending fire racing through his own blood.
Walking with his head bent against the wind he thought, Maybe after Arno gets me a couple of fights, at least one or two big ones, I’ll throw my ring shoes away. Take about a year but May and me will still have plenty of time ahead of us. I should have about ten grand socked away after two main events, say on a nation-wide TV show. At least, five thousand. I’ll buy a business, a gas station. But what do I know about cars? If the fight game wasn’t so dead, I’d hire out as a trainer, perhaps manage a few guys or… Hey! I know a natural for May and me. We’ll buy a small house, going into the rooming business! Yes, sir, we sure know enough about rooms! Yeah, we won’t be pigs, charge a reasonable rent and keep a clean place. Only steady roomers, no drunks. Not much work, some cleaning every day and changing sheets once a week, that’s about all. Man, will May go for this idea, she’ll love it! When I see her tomorrow night, I’ll spill it to her. Be better than an apartment—be our home and a business beside. Keep it small, no more than ten rooms. Guess you can buy one of these old brownstones for five grand down, all right.
He suddenly side-stepped, did a graceful jig on the sidewalk—felt as pleased as if he already had the house, or the money for one.
Passing the diner he dropped in to tell Butch, “May’s okay. She’s with her cousin.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Tommy shrugged. “Anyway, she said to tell you thanks for all you done.” Tommy motioned toward four or five men at the counter. “This Shorty James around?”
“Okay, forget you saw me.”
“I forgot the first time I ever saw you,” Butch said, still annoyed at having his sitting ritual disturbed earlier in the evening.
Tommy couldn’t help but see the meat plant. He asked a driver unloading a track full of frozen sides of beef where he could find Shorty. Glancing at Tommy’s face, his clothes, the driver shouldered a side of beef, said he’d see if he could find him. Minutes later a tall man wearing a bloody once-white butcher coat over layers of sweaters and dirty fur-lined boots, came out holding a baling hook in one hand. A stained ski cap with earflaps was pushed back from his swarthy face. The driver was carrying a heavy wooden mallet. The tall man asked, “You looking for me?”
“Yeah, if you’re Shorty James,” Tommy said, watching the driver edging over behind him.
“What you want?”
“I have some private talk for you.” Tommy glanced at the driver who didn’t make any move to walk away.
The tall Shorty said, “I don’t know you. What we got to talk about?”
“I’m May’s husband. May, the waitress at the diner. I come to tell you she didn’t mean to hold out, that I’ll make up the dough coming to you.”
A smile formed on Shorty’s dark face. He told the track driver, “It’s okay, Al.” As the driver went back to unloading his truck, Shorty told Tommy, “We thought you were a loan-shark goon. You have my money?”
“Not with me. Ill have to get it up. But my May isn’t a thief and you’ll get every cent due you. Six hundred bucks.” Tommy pulled out a ten dollar bill, handed it to him.
“What’s the ten spot for?”
“On account. Look, I don’t know if I can raise the dough in one hunk, but the main thing is you know you’ll get it. What the devil, if you got it all at once you’d probably ball it away. My way…”
“Don’t worry about me balling away my dough. Ill worry about that. How soon will I be paid?”
“I don’t know. I got to raise it. But May isn’t running out on you. She admits you’re owed the six hundred, that’s the important thing. I’ll get it to you soon as I can. I know what it means to score a hit and not get paid off.”
Disappointment flooded Shorty’s long face. “When I found out I’d hit I… Look, will I get the dough next week, next month? When?”
“Get the spot I’m in, Mr. James. My wife’s in a jam, didn’t know what she was getting into. But that ain’t none of your worry. I’m trying my best to straighten things out. Ill get you the dough as soon as I can. That’s the best I can tell you, except you won’t loose a cent of the six hundred.”
Shorty gently scratched his leg with the bailing hook. “Okay, I knew May would never job me. I was surprised when she started picking up the digits, but I give her my bets because I figured she was absolutely on the level. Try to pay me soon as you can, I’m up the creek for dough, and I’d like it in a lump sum. You know where to find me. Not six hundred, only the five hundred and forty I expected, I would have ripped May the difference.”
Tommy pocketed the ten dollar bill. “You don’t have to worry, I never welshed on anything in my life.”
Switching the bailing hook to his left hand, Shorty shook hands with Tommy, told him, “It’s a deal. I hear May got worked over. I’m sorry about running to Big Burt. Tell May I’m sorry. But you know how it is. Keep playing every day and when you get a hit that might make you at least even. It gets messed up. I swear I never thought Big Burt would whip her.”
“I don’t go for women being beaten. I wouldn’t have said a word if I’d known that was going to happen. I thought Burt would pay me, that’s how I went to him. May badly hurt?”
“I don’t think so,” Tommy said, Big Burt’s name making the anger deep within him boil again. “Say, what’s this Burt look like?”
“Heavyset guy, tall as a basketball player. Wears a beret. A pretty boy.”
“Is he around now?”
Shorty hesitated. “Well, yeah. He’s picking up the play for tomorrow. Generally find him hanging around the all-night bar on West Street. Listen, if you’re thinking of tangling with him—don’t. Your face says you been in plenty of brawls, but Big Burt ain’t as soft as he looks. He’s handy with a knife. Said to have cut up lots of guys.”
“I only want to tell him you and I are straight, so hell leave May alone. I’ll see you soon.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Tommy found West Street. There was only one open bar, an ancient place with neon beer signs in the dirty window. A few produce men were having “lunch” and beers. Tommy asked the bartender, “Where’s Big Burt?”
“He’ll be around.”
“What’s the matter, you guys can’t wait to lose your dough? Must of had a hot dream. He’s got his rounds to make. He’ll be here. Want anything?”
“Later.” Tommy leaned against the bar, yawning. He was usually in bed before midnight. Jeez, he thought, even the barkeep has plastered down hair. All they need is gas-light.
Fifteen minutes later the bartender came over. “Ready now?”
Tommy was on his second gin belt a half hour later when Big Burt entered. He sported a worn blue beret and was well over six feet and fleshy. He wore a blue work shirt, dirty white bow tie, a once-white sweater, and a baggy heavy overcoat. These were his work clothes. He knew it was poor advertising to dress in his usual flashy manner around the markets. His large-featured face was loose, and almost over-handsome. Tommy took in the soggy chins, the padded shoulders, the lardy backside, decided Burt was big, but that was all. Not that it mattered. He wasn’t here to fight. And while he believed the old fight maxim—a good big man can whip a good little man—he also was aware of the difference between a pug and the ordinary man.
Burt stopped to talk to a man at a table, and pocket a half a dollar. Burt took out a deck of cards. He was using hearts for the first figure, spades for the second, and clubs for the last number. On the joker he wrote the man’s initials and one-half. Then he penciled the initials on one comer of the five of hearts, in the same comer of the two of spades, and on the comer of the nine of clubs. He had the man down for fifty cents on 529. Thus if Burt was ever picked up —and now and then he had to stand still for a routine arrest (but ‘somehow’ never for an indictment or conviction) Burt didn’t have any slips or evidence on him. There wasn’t any law against carrying a deck of cards, even marked ones.
The barkeep called Burt over and whispered. Burt approached Tommy, asked, “You looking for me? You’re new around here.”
“Aha.” Tommy counted the overcoat buttons. Between the third and fourth buttons, if it came to that, as he thought, “Main thing is to control myself, get this settled. He said, “I came to tell you that May, the waitress at the diner, squared the play with Shorty. It’s all settled.”
Burt grinned. He was certain Tommy wasn’t a dick. His face shouted pug, but a small one. “Who settled it?”
“I did. I’m making arrangements to pay Shorty off. May’s sorry, and don’t want no more trouble with you. Okay?”
“Who are you?”
“What’s the diff? The beef is squared.”
“I like to know whom I’m talking to.” Burt had a vague fear the syndicate brass might be behind Tommy.
“I’m May’s husband. Now you know. Everything okay?”
“Tell your bitch if she ever shows her ugly puss around here, I’ll…”
Tommy’s right hand moved. Burt’s raced for his coat pocket. But Tommy was merely feinting with his right; a perfect left hook landed in the middle of Big Burt’s groin, then a short hard right thudded between the third and fourth buttons into the solar plexus. It was so fast Burt still had his hand at the top of his pocket. As he started to sink to the floor, big face tight with pain, another left slashed Burt’s eye, a right closed the other eye, a left broke his nose.
All of this took less than a brace of seconds. Tommy glanced around to see what the others were going to do, watched the bartender out of the corner of his eye. Everybody seemed scared, motionless.
Tommy shook his fingers, felt of his knuckles. Burt’s head was resting on the bar railing, then hit the floor with a dull sound. His face was red with blood, right hand still in his pocket, left hand pressing between his legs. Tommy said, “You big bastard, you didn’t have to slap her around. She didn’t know what she was doing. She would have made the money good.” He walked out of the bar. No one made a move to stop him. In fact, when he had left the bar the first sound was a produce man muttering, “Geez, did you see that little redheaded guy go? Wow!”
Outside, Tommy walked fast, turning comers and listening for any following footsteps until he found himself out of the market area, in a silent street of dark office buildings. Tommy trotted over to a bus and thirty-five minutes later he was in his hotel room, undressing. It was after three. His knuckles were swollen but not broken. The skin wasn’t even cut. He got into bed and fell off to sleep at once. Tommy felt very good.
Arno was a light sleeper. He had returned to the hotel at one o’clock after reading the morning papers while eating sweet Greek pastry in an upstairs coffee shop he’d found. He had noticed Tommy’s key was still at the desk.
Now, he awoke as Tommy closed the door across the hall. For a moment Arno listened to the heavy breathing of Jake in the bed next to his. Then he sat up, lit a match, looked at his fancy wrist watch. (Worth a hundred dollars in any pawn shop.) He smiled at the time, blew out the match, and turned until reaching a comfortable sleeping position. He made a mental note to get Jake on the road early, then dozed off.
Arno was also feeling quite contented.
Jake awoke him at seven. Jake was dressed in a woolen cap, sweat shirt, old pants, a windbreaker, and heavy shoes. He was half asleep himself, Arno having forced him out of bed a few minutes before. It was almost with a feeling of revenge that he shook Tommy, asked, “What you say, Pops, going to hit the road? Or are you too sleepy?”
“Never too sleepy to strengthen my legs,” Tommy said, in a daze, not wanting to show how tired he really felt.
They walked over to the park, then jogged and ran three miles, stopping now and then to shadow-box. It was the first time in a week Tommy had seen Jake on the road and when they stopped to spar for a second, both of them sweating freely, he asked, “Arno have a fight set for you?”
“Who knows? I always keep in shape.”
“Did you tell me you used to fight in New York, that you’d worked out with Basilio and Jordan at the old Still-man’s gym?”
“I never told you nothing, Pops,” Jake said coldly. “Let’s run.
Tommy said sure and shut up. They were the only pugs out but he could remember when one would see a dozen or more boxers, all guys he knew, running in the park any morning. Or the “old days” when Tommy might take a few close pals up to a training camp, how excited they’d be to hit the road with him, and puffed out after the first quarter of a mile. Tommy even paid their way, had them take off from their jobs. When he once mentioned this to Alvin while gassing over a beer, Hammer had told him, “I’ll never understand you pugs; you make a hard dollar but you’re always carrying around an entourage of freeloaders, throwing away your money. Why did you do it?”
“You see, it gets lonely in a training camp,” Tommy had tried to explain. “Bobby was much older than me, and my trainer was always telling me what John L. Sullivan had told him. I needed some guys my own age around… talk to, make jokes. No, that wasn’t money thrown away.”
Back in the hotel, after they showered, Arno joined them for breakfast, face carefully shaved and powdered, his nose no longer looking like a road-map. He told Tommy, “Guess you came in after I did last night.”
“Running a bed-check on me?”
Arno smiled, his lips almost feminine against the aftershave powder on his face. “I should say not. You know far more about conditioning than I ever will. Any time you feel the need for relaxation, go ahead. If you want a woman, let me know. I’ll fix you up.”
Tommy rubbed the wedding ring on his finger. “I have a wife. I saw her last night.”
Jake actually leered as he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me? You must have been real pooped this morning.”
“Nothing to tell. I’m feeling fine. Plan to start working out at the big gym today, try to get myself a fight.”
Arno nodded as he spread mint jam on a well buttered piece of toast, then sprinkled dried ginger over it. Watching the ginger sink into the jam, he said, “Tommy, just keep in mind there’s no rash. I want you to be ready. By the by, in case anybody around the gym asks, remember, I’m not your manager. Since the fight mob hangs out there, best to also keep my being your… uh… patron quiet. Understand?”
“Until fake is established we have to keep our deal top secret. Don’t even tell your wife. Did you tell her?”
“No. I’m not much of a talker,” Tommy said, ordering more eggs. “May, that’s the wife, doesn’t ask about boxing. She don’t exactly like the game. We been apart for the last couple years. You know how it is.” He turned to Jake. “You married?”
“Me?” Jake grunted with astonishment. “Naw.”
Tommy said, “A leatherpusher shouldn’t get hitched until he’s done with the ring. Do you have a family, Arno?”
“Not that I recognize. Guess I’ve knocked up my share of gals. I was married twice. Didn’t work out; I was too busy making money. There’s too many pretty things floating around for a man to settle down with one of them.”
“May is all the woman I want,” Tommy said, remembering again the heat of her kiss last night, and then the money he had to raise for Shorty. Watching Arno eating, his dainty enjoyment of the food, the fat face above the expensive clothes, Tommy was tempted to ask for a loan of five hundred and forty dollars. But he thought, Might sour Arno on me. I’d seem like a pig. Be different if I’d had a few fights for him, had paid him back a little of what he’s laid out.
After breakfast Tommy bought a paper and went to his room to rest and listen to the radio. Arno slipped in and held up a bottle of Irish whiskey. “Thought you’d appreciate this, Tommy. I lucked up on it last night. Ten years old and a hundred proof. Be wasted on a kid like Jake. Figured you might want to take a taste now and then, to relax.”
Tommy thanked him and when Arno left Tommy told himself, “Guy is so good to me I can’t ask him for a big bite like five hundred and forty dollars. Use a sip of this now.” He opened the bottle, took a whiff of the rich aroma and stopped the bottle half way to his lips, remembering what Walt had said about being poisoned. Then he said, “Damn, those clowns are spoiling everything for me—even a shot.” He took a small sip of the smoky-tasting liquid, then a good belt and put the bottle away in his dresser.
The whiskey relaxed him and he stretched out on the bed, thought, The hell with worrying about Arno, more important I get something working on raising Shorty’s dough, get May done with the numbers guys.
A horse called Give Me A Break was running in the third race at seven to one. Being strictly a hunch player, Tommy made a note of that. He wished he had asked May what was the number that hung her up. With my Irish luck, it might save us. Little chance of the same number coming out twice in a week, but never tell. Put three bucks on it and we’ll have dough to spare. Wonder if there’s a phone where she is? But maybe I shouldn’t bother her, or those people. Certainly nice the way they agreed to take May in. She’ll have it good there, being around kids. And it would upset May if I mentioned the numbers. First time I hit a decent payday, I’ll buy a flock of toys for those kids. I…
On the hotel radio an announcer said, “Today is your last chance to enter our big soup contest. Nothing to buy, no jingles to write. Merely send your name and address on the back of a postal card to the Betsy Soup Company, care of this station. All entries must be postmarked by midnight. Remember, first prize is one thousand dollars, with five second prizes of a new home freezer, and hundreds of other prizes. Hurry and send your entry in, you may be the lucky winner.”
Tommy made a note of that, figured even if he won a freezer it could be sold for a few hundred. Then he dozed off. He awoke before noon and headed for the gym. At the desk he bought a card and mailed it to the soup company. Stopping at the Between Rounds, he put five bucks on the horse, to win, and as an afterthought, a dollar on 559. They owed Shorty five hundred and forty dollars and yesterday was the nineteenth day of the month. He felt relieved, now that he had a “few things going” for himself. With the luck of the Irish, he thought, I might be able to pay off this Shorty by the end of the week, or by tonight. I wonder how soon they’ll announce the winners in the radio thing?
The gym owner, a loud-mouthed elderly man with a head as bald as an egg, greeted Tommy with, “I never was so surprised in my life as when I got your letter paying up your rent here. I never knew you could write.”
This was greeted with much laughter by the managers, hangers-on, and the few spectators—at seventy-five cents a head. Gym humor usually ran to some clever fellow spitting buckshot around, hot foots, or rubbing somebody down with itching powder. One of the most hysterical moments in gym history had been when a fellow wired the door handle of the phone booth until it was red hot, and then the gym owner had shouted that a certain trainer was wanted on the phone. Even the trainer had laughed while his burnt hand was being bandaged.
But now the laughter sounded lonely in the gym, for there were only a comparative few fans and pugs around. Not like the old days when fifty pugs might be working out before hundreds of fans.
Everybody had heard of Tommy’s rich manager, and a blind ex-pug peddling magazines tried to touch Tommy for a buck. Somebody else wanted to sell Tommy a “hot” ring. Tommy said it was all a lot of warmed-over air, he was still his own manager, that he had merely hit an old buddy for a hundred buck loan. But it was fine to be even a mild center of attraction—again. He put his things away in the old wooden locker and undressed. While he was working out on the bags, Alvin Hammer came in and stage-whispered out of the side of his mouth, “You learn anything, old cock?”
“Nothing. Remember, keep mum about my new manager.”
“Of course. I’ve been trying to contact Walt Steiner all morning, see what he’s found out. Be careful, Tommy.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Tommy said, humoring the announcer.
Hitting the heavy bag seemed to give him a second wind and he decided to go a few rounds. He went downstairs and sat on the long bench behind the three training rings, kidding with the other pugs. He agreed to spar two rounds with a muscular Puerto Rican lightheavy. Tommy climbed into one of the other rings and shadow-boxed a while, dancing about with five other fighters—each involved in a little ballet of his own, a snorting, macabre dance of shuffling feet on canvas.
The Puerto Rican, who was the current “sensation” of the ring world and managed by one of the “in” boys (whom the fighter had never actually seen—he only knew his manager of record who was fronting for the gangster) was training for a main event in Boston. He was sparring six rounds. Tommy went in for the middle two. The lightheavy was all tan muscles, slow and awkward, although a dangerous puncher. With a head guard and heavy gloves on, Tommy felt he could take chances. “Hell,” he told himself, waiting for the bell, “this boy has only had ten bouts. The way they rush kids these days. I had twenty-seven pro bouts under my belt before I was in a semi-final. And how about the times I used to pay guys five or ten bucks a round to work out with me? Those were the days when…”
At the bell, as he turned to face the other pug, Tommy saw Bobby Becker enter the gym. Tommy was still feeling high, with the energy of his second wind and the memory of licking Big Burt last night. And he was only going two rounds—so he gave them everything. He danced around his bigger opponent, ducking and bobbing, even dropped his hands to his sides for a moment and slipped punch after punch of the lightheavy. Then Tommy’s fast left began to jab and hook, and he put different combinations of rights and lefts together with expert ease.
They were mostly light blows, all for show. The Puerto Rican bulled Tommy to the ropes where Irish didn’t try to tie up his far stronger opponent, merely covered up with his hands. Then he slipped his right around the other’s waist, as if clinching… and deftly spun the heavier boxer around and clipped him on the jaw with a smart left hook at the bell.
Tommy walked around the ring slowly, knowing he was breathing too hard. The Puerto Rican’s handler, while rubbing vaseline on the fighter’s face, snarled, “Whatcha doing, Cork, playing it cute?”
The fighter said in broken English, “Be quiet. The little one’s speed is good for me,” and playfully jabbed Tommy on the behind.
Tommy waved at Bobby and glancing at the Negro and Puerto Rican pugs waiting to spar, he thought, with some satisfaction, I’m the last of the Irish pugs around. That’s good, means all the Irish luck will be for me.
In the second round Tommy began picking off punches in mid-air, countering time and again with his right. He was starting to tire and a stomach poke shook him up slightly. For a few seconds he took it easy and at the bell he caught his younger and heavier opponent with a solid right to the jaw, neatly crossing it over the other’s clumsy left jab. They touched gloves and Tommy wished him luck in his fight, jumped out of the ring. He held out his hands and Bobby Becker untied the heavy gloves. Tommy put a towel around his shoulders and walked about, swinging his arms, throwing punches in the air, as he cooled off. Becker told him, “You looked like your old self in there. You tired?”
“Naw, I could have gone another six rounds with him. He’s slow.”
“What’s this I hear about you got a manager, suddenly?”
“You heard tutti-frutti air. I got a rich sucker giving me eating money. You going to be around, Bobby? I want to make some talk with you after I shower.”
Bobby adjusted the glasses on his big nose. “I’ll be around. And the answer is no. I ain’t got any fights for you.”
“I’m rested up, you saw me in there. Listen, if I’m anything like my old self you know I can take any guys my weight boxing today. How about another cellar four-rounder? Give me a chance to make it up to the fans for the way I stunk up the joint the last time.”
“G’wan, take your shower, you stink of sweat now,” Bobby said, but it wasn’t a growl and Tommy felt he might get something.
A half hour later when he walked out of the locker room, Becker was having a thick salami sandwich and coffee at the lunch counter, listening to the counterman saying it wasn’t worth his while to stay open any longer. Becker said, “The whole racket is just one prolonged funeral today. Dying slowly…” He stopped on seeing Tommy, removed his fancy glasses to get a better look. “You look sharp, Irish. You certainly fell into something. Who is this mark?”
“Forget him. I’ll let you buy me some orange juice,” Tommy said, combing his thin red hair. Shaking the water off the comb, he asked, “How about a fight, Bobby?”
“Well… Okay, I should have my head examined. You got the stand-by fight next week.” Becker pulled a contract from his pocket. “Sign. Usual—twenty-five if you don’t go on, sixty bucks if you do. And look, don’t sell no blood or get stinko on me.”
Tommy took a pen from Becker’s breast pocket, signed the contract. “You’ll see, I’m on my way back to the top.”
“All I can see is I’m nuts.”
“Bobby, I’m rested. I been eating fine, put on two pounds. Why last night I flattened a heavyweight.”
“Wasn’t any bouts on last night.”
Tommy told him about May and Big Burt and Bobby’s fat face went pale. Tommy finished, ”… so I put the fear of God smack into him. He’ll leave May alone. You should of seen how I pasted…”
“You fool, you put your foot in it!” Becker said in a hoarse whisper. “Now this Big… guy… has to settle with you or May!”
“It’ll be a lot of hours before he’ll have to do anything. You don’t understand, I scared him off us.”
“Oh, you dope! You beat him up in a public place, before plenty of people. If you’d done it in an alley, he could forget about it. Now it’s all over the market!”
“That’s what I wanted—everybody to know I’d squared the bet. After I tell him things are okay, then I couldn’t let him call May names and…”
“Tommy, you got a head thick as the Blarney Stone!” Bobby said, throwing his sandwich into a trash can. “Already, you’ve rained my appetite. You’d better get May out of town, way out. And you go too!”
“But all I did was get this cruel clown off her back?”
“Tommy, Tommy, you know why cops go all out when another cop is beaten up, or killed? It isn’t that they give a damn so much about the particular cop—they can’t risk the prestige of the whole force. They can’t let anyone get the idea it’s okay to take a poke at a cop. With the numbers syndicate it’s the same. The reason this Big…”
“… Big Burt had to whip May was to stop anybody else from thinking they could hold out on the syndicate—to reassure the players the mob don’t stand for no crap. It’s the same reason they’re always careful to pay off promptly: it’s the life blood of their business. They got to keep the customers in awe of the syndicate. Okay, so now you’ve slopped up one of their runners, or bankers, or whatever this Big Burt is. If nothing is done about it, other people will get the idea the syndicate isn’t strong, ain’t much. A guy that doubts ain’t going to play with them. Listen, I know these racket punks. I was… I know!”
“You saying the big-shot goons are out to get me?”
“They have to get somebody. They may not know where to find you, but they’ll kill or cripple May. Tommy, listen to me carefully: if I know anything about punks, this Big Burt will be too proud to make it a syndicate matter—yet. He’ll try to make a showing for his bosses by settling things himself, first. So what you’ve done by shellacking him is to put him square on May’s back!”
“I only meant to… What can I do now?”
“Get May out of the market district fast. Then you have to even yourself with this joker. Maybe stand still for a beating.”
“They say he’s a knife joker, Bobby. I can’t stand still for a slicing job.”
“You and May should get out of town fast! Once it becomes a gang matter, they’ll know where to find you. I’ll lend you trainfare to… where?”
“I can’t do that either now.”
Becker took out the contract. “Ill tear this up and…”
“Leave it lay,” Tommy said, slapping Becker’s fat shoulder. Walking toward the stairs and the street, Tommy called back, “If I’m dead or cut up by next week, you can always get another boy around here.”
It was the middle of the afternoon as he headed for the markets. Tommy thought, Damn, just when I finally get a break in the ring, something like this has to come up. Bobby was right, I lost my head last night. Like letting a fighter drive you crazy by making cracks about your mother… and you leave yourself open as you come slugging in. I could have let Burt run his fat mouth, in one ear and out… Okay, I didn’t. That’s over, now I got to make my play and make it fast. God, let my luck still go for me.
Nearing the market district, Tommy walked carefully—he didn’t want to meet Big Burt now. He wondered if it would be safe to go to the bar on West Street, or would… “Hey, Cork.”
Tommy jumped as he spun around to see Butch Morris coming out of a wholesale butcher shop, lugging a large cane basket covered with brown paper. Butch crossed the street and held out a thick hand. “Had you pegged wrong, Mr. Cork. I heard what you did last night. I hope it don’t start no killings around here, but at least you acted like a ruddy man!”
Tommy shook his head. “I hope not like a dead man. Tell me, have you heard anything about what Big Burt plans to do?”
“I hear after the ambulance doc fixed him up, he yelled he was going to kill you—or May. Of course that could be so much belch-talk. I don’t know how the big numbers boys take to all this. I imagine they don’t want too much publicity and trouble. Killing is both.”
“Right now I have to worry about Burt, not the big boys. Burt around now?”
“You crazy-brave? You looking for trouble?”
“I don’t want to see him. Fact is, I want to know when he generally comes around, so I can avoid him.”
“The markets don’t start coming alive ’til night. You won’t see Burt about until maybe eight o’clock.”
“Thanks,” Tommy started walking on.
“What you going to do? He’s a shiv man.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I got to do it,” Tommy called back.
He trembled a little as he walked into the West Street bar. The place was empty, chairs even stacked on top of tables, except for an old man in a dirty shirt busy washing glasses behind the bar. Tommy asked, “Big Burt around?”
“Nope, far too early for likes of him. He’s probably still in the sack. Or at the doc’s. You hear what happened to him?” Noticing Tommy’s face the old man’s shrill voice sank. Then he asked, “You the one?”
“Aha. You going to see Burt today, for sure? Or can you get a message to him?”
“You tell Burt I’ll be here at eight tonight. I hear he’s still full of fight, still running his blubber lips. Just tell Burt if he wants to talk to me, I’ll be here at eight. But I’m busy, so I’ll only wait a few minutes for him. And gimme a fast gin. Take one yourself.” Tommy threw a half a buck on the bar.
As he glanced around for a phone, he could feel the cold sweat racing down his sides. Then he thought, No, be silly to phone from here. Well, I’ve thrown the damn dice, see what my luck turns up when they hit the wall.
Walt and his partner, an older and rather fat man named Jim, were investigating a burglary. It was a routine affair— except to the victim. An apartment had been entered by breaking the kitchen window on the fire escape, sometime during the morning, while the woman of the house was out shopping. It was obviously the work of a punk. The house was an ancient walk-up to start with, and a couple of suits, a piggy bank, a worn fur jacket, a table radio, and an old table lighter had been taken. If the thief was very lucky he might get ten dollars for everything, and a few bucks from the piggy bank.
Despite the rundown appearance of the place, the woman carried theft insurance, so Jim had made a list of the missing items while Walt had been arguing with, and gently kidding, the angry housewife who thought they should be busy taking footprints and fingerprints off the busted window. The flat was on the top floor and they had already walked the six flights twice—once to see the super—and explored the roof. Walt was telling her, “Lady, prints only work in the movies. We’ll make the rounds of the pawn shops, that’s the best way. The department has a special detail on the lookout for stolen things. I’d also advise you to have an iron gate put on the inside of the window. Since you’re in the rear and… Well, yes, I suppose having bars on the window might make the kitchen look a little like a jail, but then, people in jail don’t get robbed. What? No, lady, I’m really not being facetious, merely practical. Or get a dog. Now we’ll let you know if any of your items turn up in the hock shops. If you find anything else missing, please call me at this number. You have our names and badge numbers, be sure you give them to your insurance agent. They may have somebody up here today. That’s all.”
Walking down the six flights of the old apartment house, Jim said, “They all act the same. Think we got time to make a case out of every two-bit forced entry. Bet we have a couple more squeals before our tour is over. I’m surprised she didn’t ante up the amount of her loss. Some women are dumb. Even if the insurance won’t pay it all, she can put it down as a loss on her old man’s income tax.”
“Still, we should have had time to look into it thoroughly. Might have found prints and collared this punk before he pulls a dozen more jobs,” Walt said half aloud, his mind really not in it.
Jim glanced at him and shook his head. Walt said the same thing at every robbery. They had been partners for several years. Neither particularly liked the other. Walt thought Jim was too sloppy in his job while Jim considered Walt far too serious. As Jim would say, and often did, “We can only do so much as police officers. We put in our crazy eight hours, get indigestion from changing tours and eating habits so often, and that’s it for us. So we can’t reform the whole world; it ain’t our job and the hell with it.”
Walt didn’t approve of Jim’s drinking and running around, or his loud clothes, while Jim privately considered Walt a humorless “drag.” But they each respected and fairly understood the other, and both were capable when they had to be.
As they sat in the squad car, Jim lit a cigarette and Walt yawned. Jim asked, “What’s come over you today, Walt? Tie one on last night? First time I’ve ever seen you look like you been up all night. And you were almost jovial, or what passes for humor with you, with that crying mama up there.”
“I didn’t get hardly any sleep last night. I was helping a friend… eh… move,” Walt said, yawning again.
Actually his brain was far from sleepy; it was working like mad. Walt didn’t understand exactly what had happened last night. First he had been surprised when Ruth had readily agreed to help find May. When he and Tommy had been standing in the cold outside the crummy rooming-house for so long, Walt had wondered what Ruth could possibly be doing up there all the time. Tommy kept muttering he wanted to go up and see his wife, and suddenly Walt knew what Ruth was up to and he wanted to laugh. It was crazy how one simple thing could reflect so many different angles to different people. Tommy worried about a wife he’d rarely seen; May Cork beaten and frightened because she turned greedy; Walt himself annoyed at working on his own time, standing in the cold like a fool; and Ruth working an entirely different tack, figuring how all this could add up to a story for her.
When she’d come down and Tommy had gone for food, Walt had wanted to impress upon her this wasn’t a game of charades, that a woman had nearly been beaten to death. But he hadn’t and when Ruth took the food up and there was another long wait in the raw cold, Walt had really become angry. A silly waitress gets involved with the numbers syndicate over a lousy buck, and he, Walt Steiner, suddenly found himself way out on a limb. There were certain things a cop had to shut his eyes to. Just as you never gave a ticket to a politician, so a cop didn’t fool with the numbers boys. It was plain common sense—all that was taken care of by “downtown.” Whether “downtown” was holding out a fat palm or not wasn’t his business.
So, last night Walt had felt a double chill on the street. Then when Ruth had finally come down and sent Tommy up, there had been the business of waking a friend in the middle of the night, explaining and trying not to explain why he wanted to borrow a car. (Neither Ruth nor Walt ever had a desire to own a car.) Finally, there had been the job of driving May up to her old room, watching the place while she and Ruth quickly packed all her things—the “all” being one thin suitcase full—and the fairly long drive over to Ruth’s sister’s place—after dropping Tommy off at his hotel. It was well after three o’clock when Walt at last returned the car, took a cab to the apartment with Ruth. He was not only grouchy from lack of sleep, worried over butting in on the numbers syndicate, but he also felt like a damn taxi driver, carting people all over the place. He had gone to bed at once while Ruth fooled around in the bathroom.
As he was dozing off, he was awakened to find Ruth standing nude beside the bed. Then she had asked some silly questions about, “Walt, do you see any difference between Mrs. Rockefeller and myself? Am I as pretty, now, as Mrs. Hemingway?”
“What?” he’d asked, coming out of his fog of sleep.
“Do you think I’m getting fat? Starting to spread?” Ruth ran her hands over her strong hips.
“I’m sleepy. Get something on before you catch cold.”
“Do I look ‘cold’ to you?”
“What is this? You look… okay,” Walt had granted, now wide awake, his eyes greedily racing over her big body. Then Ruth had pulled back the covers and carefully taken off his pajamas. She’d said, in a whisper, “Your body is still so… hard and powerful. You’re a fine built man, Walt. Hundreds of girls dream of a guy like you.”
There was a faint smile on her face when she finished talking and he lay there, full of suspicion. Then he wondered if, after all the weeks of not touching her, Ruth had seen his need and was being charitable. The thought gave him the same kind of chill he’d felt outside the rooming-house. He tried to turn his back on her but Ruth’s hands began to caress his body. He’d asked, “What’s brought this sudden change about?”
“My husband has a delightful body. I want…”
“My body was the same yesterday, and the night before. What is this?”
“Do I need a special reason for admiring your body? Oh, I suppose it’s May Cork. I relearned something from her, something so terribly basic I’d forgotten it—that everything is comparative.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s too late for any smart talk. Get to bed,” Walt had said, reaching for the blanket, fighting any show of desire with a stubborn, almost childish, independence.
“Of course,” Ruth had said, turning off the light. Her warm body had slid across his and his hands fondled her as their lips met….
Thinking about it now, as he had been most of the morning, Walt had long since given up trying to understand what had happened, the “why” of it. All that mattered was it had been the greatest night of his life, more demanding and exciting than their honeymoon. There had been moments of tears and whispered confessions, each admitting they had been wrong. There had been violent expressions of love and passion—in words and deeds. As dawn came, they had finally fallen asleep in each other’s arms, happily exhausted. He’d only been able to sleep for an hour when it was time to get up. He considered calling in sick for the day but was afraid he’d spoil the wonder of the last few hours. For the first time in years, Walt had reported late for his tour of duty.
And while he wanted only to rest and think of what had happened, it turned out to be a busy and tiring day: the forced entry, a stolen car, a follow-up on an old case. After a rushed lunch they had gone to court, to find “their” case had been postponed. Jim was on edge with the frustrations of the day, but back in the squad room as Walt was yawning over some paper work, eager to see Ruth again, Alvin Hammer phoned, asked, “Did the prints show anything?”
“What prints?” Walt was completely confused, wondered for a hazy second if he was talking to the husband of the woman who’d been robbed, the forced entry deal.
“You were going to get a copy of the fingerprints of this boxer, Jake Watson, see if they tell us anything.”
“Give me time. I’m busy.”
Alvin said gravely, “A man’s very life may be in danger.”
“Oh take it slow, Al. I have a job, remember? Soon as I’m finished here, I’ll drop by the commission offices. Assuming you’re right…”
“I feel in my bones I’m right,” Alvin boomed.
“Then relax your bones. I’m not Tommy’s private cop. I was up with him most of last night, straightening out some trouble his wife was in. Look, we have time on this. You can’t pull an insurance swindle a few days after you take out the policy. There’s always a waiting period.”
“True, but try to find out anything you can now. My secretary is over at a newspaper morgue this minute, checking on every ring fatality in the past five years.”
“If I had a secretary, I’d send her over to the commission,” Walt said, grinning at his own little joke.
“I saw the old cock working out in the gym today. He looked like a true champ, flitting around the ring with the grace of a dancing ghost, a…”
Walt found himself dozing off as he listened. When Hammer finally hung up, Walt went out for a cup of coffee to keep awake, and a sandwich—he’d been hungry all day. Jim picked him up in the cafeteria to investigate an assault case, which turned out to be only a drunken family argument. When they returned to the squad room there was a phone message for Walt.
Important I see you at eight tonight in bar on West Street and 4th Avenue. Only bar around there. Something has come up. Very important
Cursing to himself, Walt tried to think how he could get in touch with Tommy. Walt had phoned Ruth at noon and they’d sweet-talked like kids, decided to dine out that evening and perhaps take in a show… although Ruth had said she was anxious to return to bed, and then talked so “dirty” over the phone Walt had blushed—with pleasure.
Now, finishing up his paper work, trying to keep his eyes open, he finally called Alvin, who had no idea where Tommy could be reached. When he heard about the message, Alvin was worried. He tried the gym and Bobby Becker, then called back to tell Walt he couldn’t locate Tommy, felt it would be too dangerous to call the hotel. He asked Walt what he thought the message meant.
“I don’t know. Tommy probably has some bug up his rear. I phoned his wife, she’s okay.”
“Then it must have something to do with the insurance deal. Bobby seems worried about Tommy, but he wouldn’t tell me a thing. I’ll keep looking for Irish. I have a commercial to do at ten, but I’ll do my best to be at the bar at eight.”
“Good. Phone me at home if you find Tommy. I’m not sure I can make it tonight.”
“But Tommy’s message said it was very important.”
“Hammer, I’ll be off duty in a few minutes. I’ve had a busy day. I’m bushed. I also have a home and a wife. I told you I spent most of the night with Tommy. My sun doesn’t rise and set in the doings of Irish Cork. If I can help him, great. But I said, if.”
“That’s a surprising attitude, Walt. That is… well,” Alvin was trying to control his anger. “The point is, since we’re all a part of the boxing sport, in one form or another, why we have a special interest in helping Tommy.”
“I have been giving him my special attention, hours of it,” Walt said, feeling too tired and too good to argue. Or even laugh at skinny Alvin thinking he was any part of the real fight racket. “If I can make it at eight, I will. If I can’t… the case won’t be settled this evening.”
“Perhaps it will,” Alvin said, almost smugly. “Perhaps that’s exactly what Tommy means by ‘very important.’”
Walt yawned again. “Take my word for it, if they do plan to kill Tommy, it won’t be tonight. I’m going home in a few minutes. Should you see or hear from Tommy, have him call me there.”
Reaching his apartment, Walt washed up, changed to a sweat shirt and slippers, then fell asleep watching cowboys racing across the TV screen. He was awakened by Ruth kissing him. Pulling her down onto his lap, they necked and fooled around. Walt wisecracked, “We’re sure a testimonial to whoever made this chair, the entire three hundred and sixty pounds of us.”
They were too lazy to eat out and both helped with the supper. Walt liked to cook Chinese dishes. As they were doing the dishes Ruth asked, “What do you want to do tonight? I’m kind of bushed, the very best type of tiredness, and wouldn’t argue a bit against going right to bed.”
“I’m in favor of that deal. Or if you still want to take in a show…?”
“I made a feeble attempt to get tickets to one or two things. Frankly, the only show I’m interested in is the one we put on early this morning.”
“That’s my girl talking,” Walt said, peeling off his sweat shirt, then his watch. It was four minutes after seven as he checked it with the electric wall clock. He said, “Tommy Cork left a message, almost an order, to meet him at some bar tonight at eight. The Voice, Alvin Hammer, practically accused me of being a phony cop, remiss in my duty, and all the rest of it, when I told him I couldn’t make it. He sounded like having a real home life is a crime—for a cop.”
“Any idea what the old man wants?” Ruth asked. “Lord, why do I keep thinking of Tommy as ‘old’? Perhaps Tommy really has something important to tell you.”
Walt went over and kissed her. “What’s more important than taking you to bed?”
“Nothing. But we’ll have many beds and many nights, not to mention we can go to bed after you see Tommy. You said last night somebody may be trying to murder him. Really?”
“I’m not sure. Al Hammer got the murder idea going. Things look fishy, some new manager insured him for a pile of money. The very fact any manager would be interested in a has-been like Tommy is suspicious.”
“Then perhaps you should see what he wants?”
“Hey, now yon sound like Alvin. Honey, if Tommy had anything hot, he’d come here.”
Ruth hugged him, covered Walt’s big face with hot little wet kisses. “You’re so big and strong and Tommy is such a battered little guy. I feel sorry for him. And for May. Compared to them you and I have so much, while they want very little from life, yet seem to have this terrible time getting anything.”
“You’re like one of those displays turning in a show window, Ruth. I…”
“What? A display?” she asked, between kisses.
“I see a new side to you every minute. Honey, when did you get on the sentimental kick? I’ve always thought of you as the cool dame, everything arranged just so in her mind.”
“Call me a dame again, Walt.”
Pulling her head from his face, Walt kissed her hard on the lips, mumbled, “Don’t you see, I’d like to help them, if I can. As a policeman I certainly want to help if he’s in danger. But don’t buy your own soft sell on them. They ‘want very little from life….’ Sure, so May bucks the numbers mob. While you’re breaking your heart over poor Tommy, if he hadn’t been so greedy, or dumb, he would have made his pile in the ring, and probably got rooked out of it by sharp businessmen. But he let himself be rushed and suckered into a Robinson match.”
“No, he did that deliberately, because he needed fast money for a TB operation for May. She got into this numbers mess only to raise a lousy one hundred and fifty dollars —enough to buy an apartment. My God, the way she talked about that one room apartment and the one hundred and fifty dollars—like they were a million bucks and a swank duplex. Walt, the trouble with us, with people in general, is we only think of heroes as “big” people doing “big” deeds. I’m going to try to get this idea into my book, make it the theme—that there are such people as little heroes, and they’re as important to the rest of us as the ‘regular’ heroes. Tommy and May, in their own way, are courageous people with great dignity. I admire them.”
“Then I take it you want me to see him tonight?”
“Yes, if you think you should.”
“What a slick answer. Shall I go?”
“Up to you, Walt.”
Giving her a final kiss, Walt pushed her off his lap and started to dress, putting on a clean shirt, checking his gun in the hip holster. Getting into his overcoat he said, “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Walt, you’re not angry at me?”
“Come on, of course not. Guess I’d feel uneasy if I didn’t see him. You think he really took that licking from Robinson for May?”
“That’s what she told me. Said Tommy knew he wasn’t ready, but there was the dead baby and her lungs, and they needed some quick thousands.”
“I thought he was just another dumb musclehead who let himself be fast-talked by a greedy manager. Okay, I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
Outside, Walt shivered with the night rawness. It was twenty after seven and he decided to walk part of the way, let the cold push some of the tiredness out of his mind. He thought about what Ruth had said about the little heroes. “Still,” he said to himself, “a punk sticking up a housewife, snatching a purse, lifting a car—when you get down to it most of them do it for rent and eating money. Are they heroes? But… there’s a difference. Tommy didn’t hurt anybody but himself. He didn’t take somebody else’s money, or shoot or pistol-whip anyone. He took the beating himself. Yeah, guess he is a hero, if a dumb one, he could have taken a dive in the first round. Way I remember it, he stood up to Robinson for five or six rounds, until body punches sapped his strength. What a way to make a payday. No matter what the need, would I have the guts to have gone the distance with Louis, or Patterson?”
At seven-thirty Walt stopped for a cup of coffee, to warm up, then decided he had walked enough and took a bus cross-town to the market area. He stood outside the West Street bar for a moment, holding his overcoat collar around his ears. He couldn’t recall if Tommy’s message had said to wait outside or in the bar. It was a minute after eight and West Street full of a cold wind from the river. Walt stepped inside as he opened the door he knew by the tense stillness something was wrong.
Several men were standing rigidly at the bar, paralyzed with fear. A couple were sitting at a table, horror engraved on the woman’s meaty face. Tommy Cork stood in the center of the place, facing Big Burt, while at one end of the bar Alvin Hammer and the bartender presented a perfect tableau of pale horror. Alvin was trying to talk, his mouth working, but for once in his life his voice failed him.
Tommy’s hands were loose at his sides, but there was a kind of electric stance to his legs—ready to move. Big Burt, face still discolored and puffed, dirty tape covering the stitches over one eye, held a nasty looking switchblade in his right hand. He held the knife up a bit high, the better to start slicing, and the hard bright blade was the only thing glittering in the dreary bar. Burt was saying, the voice as mean as the knife, ”… and I’m going to cut you up for crab bait!”
“You know where you can shove that sticker,” Tommy said, his voice sounding casual because all his attention was on Burt’s eyes and feet. He was waiting for Burt to come a few steps nearer. A knife man has to work in close, and Tommy would start swinging then.
Being a good cop, while his eyes took in all this, Walt’s hands hadn’t been idle; automatically they had loosened his gun in its holster, opened his coat. Stepping forward, Walt said, “Police officer! Drop that knife!”
He was a few steps behind Big Burt when Burt turned like a cat, slashed out at Walt, then spun around to face Tommy. The second the knife sliced the air, Walt fired. He fired twice, so fast, it was all one sound. Burt had actually turned and was facing Tommy’s fist, knife hand still raised. Suddenly the big man staggered, then fell sideways, crashing to the floor. Dead.
Walt pinned his badge on his coat as Alvin came forward, gushing and booming, “Thank God you arrived! I saw it all. This… this… brute pulled a knife on Tommy without the slightest provocation! He must have been simply mad!”
Walt stood with his big lips parted, feeling many things. He was numb with the thought that he had killed a human being—could feel the coffee rising in his throat. He was frightened, and then a fierce anger made the coffee settle in his belly.
The beaten face of the dead man frightened Walt, for he realized this must be the numbers punk. There would be all sorts of repercussions downtown. There would be screaming headlines, scandal, and the brass would need a scapegoat. With a sickening feeling he knew who that would be. They might even accuse him of shooting Big Burt as a favor to Tommy.
The anger came when he saw the smile of relief on Tommy’s tight face, suspected the little pug had set him up to shoot the big goon.
A radio car came to a stop outside, the siren even silencing Hammer’s booming voice. In a matter of seconds the bar seemed full of police and the jabbering of the customers. Then, somehow, Alvin Hammer’s deep voice dominated things once more as he said, “I’m a television announcer and a witness to the entire affair. If Detective Steiner hadn’t happened by—an act of God—this crazed thug would have knifed Mr. Cork. This is Irish Tommy Cork, the fighter.”
Words bounced all about Walt’s head and he was like a spectator in all the rush as patrolmen, detectives—including a Homicide lieutenant—and then an ambulance doctor, took over the bar. Alvin’s voice was still on top of the situation, was every place, including phoning his studio to rush a mobile unit over.
All Walt could think of, was what he’d tell the brass; he had to have a hell of a foolproof story the first time out. Then his fear began to dull as he also realized having Alvin around was a form of protection. This thing couldn’t be hushed up. Anything they did to him would be publicized. Walt found himself next to Tommy who whispered, “I’m sorry, Walt, but I had to get this louse off May….”
“Sure, you had to slug him too!”
“No, that was last night. I was trying to square things. You see I fixed it up with the guy who’d played the number. Then I wanted to tell Big Burt things were okay and he called May… names. Anyway, I couldn’t let him get away with beating up my wife. Would you, if it had been Ruth?”
“All this happened last night?”
“Then why the rumble now?”
“I found out by punching Burt I’d only made things worse, for May, so…”
“So you wanted me here because… Why, you cocky little dope, did you set yourself up as a decoy?”
Tommy shrugged. “Certain friends told me I had to get him before he made it a syndicate affair.”
Walt was staring at him with his mouth open—again. Then he gasped, “But supposing I hadn’t showed? Or had been a few minutes late? Why, for all you know, I might have been working now!”
Tommy grinned. “I trusted my Irish luck.”
Al went to bed at ten after two and was up at five o’clock. He was far too nervous, excited, and over-tired to sleep. But he was happy. Work was a tranquilizer to him, and the faster the pace the more he enjoyed it. He often found work more relaxing than the high-priced call girls he patronized. His station had set up an on-the-spot remote for the nightly eleven o’clock news. Everything had been a happy blur of activity from the moment his heart froze—when Big Burt came at Tommy with a knife—until he was telling the TV audience what had happened, pointing to the crude chalk outline on the floor, showing where Burt had fallen.
To Alvin’s amazement, Walt had been shy, in fact almost sullen, over the whole deal. Walt and a plump police lieutenant had a fast talk and Alvin was told not to mention Burt’s connection with the numbers racket. Al didn’t quite understand what they were talking about, since he didn’t know about May, but Tommy seemed pleased. All Alvin knew was he had walked into the crummy bar a few minutes before eight, and started over toward Tommy, who was standing in the middle of the bar. Cork had stared at him, eyes big under his scarred eyebrows.
“Get out of here, Al. There’s going to be trouble.” Cork’s voice had been a hoarse, dramatic hiss.
“What’s up? You find something about Arno?”
“Please, get out of here! At least stay away from me. Go sit down.”
Puzzled, and a little hurt, Alvin had hardly reached the end of the bar when he heard a loud, “Ain’t you the dumb, stupid-brave little sonofabitch for showing again!”
There was this large, heavy-set man with the bruised face, wearing a shabby overcoat and a silly little blue beret perched on his pumpkin head, slowly approaching Irish. He jerked his hand from his pocket and the knife blade appeared like a rabbit out of a hat.
Tommy seemed calm, if pale, but Alvin was so frightened he had to clutch the bar to keep from fainting. Several hysterical thoughts crashed around in his head. He must jump forward and shield Tommy. Al had no idea why he thought this, and if he had been able to move he would have faced Burt. He could scream. Then, he wanted to urge the others to do something. Alvin even considered hurling the beer bottle of the man standing next to him at Burt, but he might hit Tommy.
Then things moved into high speed. Suddenly there had been Walt walking toward Burt’s back. Walt looked as large as Burt, but far more solid. The rest had been too fast to really see. Burt whirling on Walt, then turning again toward Tommy and the two orange flames leaping from Walt’s clenched hand, the short barking sounds… and Burt falling.
But the second Burt crashed to the floor, Alvin not only came alive, but took charge. By the time he went on the air, he was half-crocked. After all, it had happened in a bar. But his voice was steady and booming, the excitement he felt almost an understatement. Although the bar was jammed with reporters, police, and the curious, Al had the stage to himself as he faced the TV camera. Leaning casually on the bar, pipe in hand, he had said, “In this bar—an old-time saloon—now a part of your living-room, a man was shot to death many minutes ago. I am Alvin Hammer, the fight announcer, and by chance I witnessed the whole thing. Irish Tommy Cork, a fighter, and a personal friend of mine, was standing exactly where I am at this moment, when without a word of warning, a giant thug known as Big Burt approached him with a switch-blade. We now know Burt had tried to assault Mrs. Cork several nights ago and last night Tommy had confronted and licked him—although outweighed by at least a one-hundred pounds. Undoubtedly Big Burt had been plotting his revenge all day. Burt has a criminal record; once served five years for armed robbery and was also twice arrested for assault and battery.
“Unarmed and unflinching, Irish Tommy stood his ground, facing the cold steel. There certainly would have been a bloody murder if Detective Walter Steiner hadn’t walked into the bar. Identifying himself as a police officer, Steiner ordered Burt to drop his knife. Burt’s answer was an attempt to slash the detective. With lightning speed, Detective Steiner, a former Olympic boxer himself, went for his gun and shot the thug dead—two bullets in his heart. I salute Detective Walt Steiner who risked his life while off duty, and I know the police department and every citizen must indeed feel proud of this heroic police officer…”
Now, sitting in his office, Alvin felt fine. His picture, along with an old one of Tommy and a mug shot of Big Burt, was on the front page of the morning papers. A major TV columnist lauded the network and Al for a “thrilling, on-the-spot-human interest report.” Even the elevator operator had told Al what a “kick” it had been. There was a memo telegram from the studio president, and all during the morning Al received a steady stream of calls and congratulatory handshakes. He phoned Walt at the squad room but was told Walt was downtown. He felt it was safe to call Tommy at his hotel but the desk clerk told him Tommy was doing road-work.
Later in the morning, while being shaved, Alvin had a new idea and ordered a phone brought to the barber chair. Calling Bobby Becker, Al told him, loud enough, of course, for everybody in the shop to hear, “Becker, you’ve seen Tommy’s name and face all over the front pages, haven’t you?”
“Aha. Between boxing and his outside interests, that Irishman isn’t long for this world.”
“You don’t recognize true courage when it hits you right in your fancy eyeglasses, my Bobby. Look, I was thinking, with all this publicity, how about giving the old cock a break and…”
“What did you say? The old what?” Becker asked, while in the barbershop the ancient blonde manicurist let out a giggle.
“Old cock, as in a game old bird—a fighting cock. I think it would get your club and fight card reams of free publicity if you announced you’re giving Tommy a break, move him up to the main go. Surely increase the sales and…”
“Now, Hammer, you know the score. I… eh… don’t pick the main event pugs… just like that.”
Alvin lowered his voice. “Show the same courage Tommy revealed! This is your chance to tell… them… to go to hell!” He wondered if it really was true Bobby received a modest flat salary and was running the club as a front for the fight mob? The “mob” was such a nebulous term. Of course Alvin had heard the “game” was in the hands of a small gang of racketeers… yet he’d never seen anybody who “looked” like a gangster, nor had he ever seen any rough stuff. Rather it was all like a strict business set-up in which the top executives are rarely seen by the public—the phone user who doesn’t even know the name of the phone company president.
Bobby said, “Hammer, you know how I feel about Tommy. But I can’t buck… nobody. Why don’t you do it? You pull the strings. You TV crew-cuts control boxing now. A real pitch by Madison Avenue and the fight game would be clean within a month.”
“You’re the promoter, matchmaker, or whatever your title is, so don’t give me the ball, you gutless wonder!” Al said, hanging up, remembering, with disgust, Becker taking his cut of Tommy’s last purse, thinking, By God, if they cut the lousy few bucks from an emergency four-rounder, how cheap can you get? If I ever get out of fight announcing, I’ll blast the sponsors for not cleaning up the game. Their silence is consent. What a page-one story that will make, and they’d probably send the mob gunning for me. Make another headline which I wouldn’t be around to read.
Alvin taped a commercial on the first take and phoned Walt again, left a message he would be in the Between Rounds Bar later that afternoon. Then he had lunch with an agency man who had an audience participation contest gimmick: they would show films of the various old championship fights in each division. The listener would then send in a one hundred word letter as to why he thought Dempsey or Louis was the greatest heavyweight champ ever, along with the all important box top. A panel of sports writers would pick the winning letter and if the champ named was still alive, he would present the letter writer with the grand prize. As the agency man said, “Why we’ll even have old maids buying shaving cream to get into the contest.”
Alvin wanted to say the man was demeaning the sport, but all he did say was, “I’d be glad to m.c. this, if you get the package off the ground.” And in his mind he again saw the shooting of last night and felt sincerely proud of himself—Al now felt his courage was on a par with Tommy’s, or Walt’s… or any other fighter. He was sure he now truly belonged.
Finishing breakfast after his roadwork, Jake had gone right up to his room arid to sleep. Training annoyed him and this morning he’d been doubly irritated because Arno hadn’t been around when Jake returned from running in the park. “The slob is probably stuffing his fat face,” Jake told himself, “with some of the weird chow he goes for, while I’m running my legs out. I’m sure getting the hard end of this deal. All the work and I still only get a fifty-fifty split.”
Actually Jake disliked the training grind because it reminded him of the time when he had gloried in it. Not too many years before, Jake had accidentally turned to boxing and immediately ceased being merely another rough punk: he had at last found his racket. Jake knew he was a sensational fighting machine, that fame and fortune awaited him—trite words which Jake translated into: girls. In those days he would spend much of his time in the movie theatres and upon seeing any girl on the screen who struck his liking, Jake would think, Okay baby, keep looking stuck-up, and keep all that stuff warm. In a few months I’ll be knocking on your door, a big money fighter. You’ll welcome me—here comes the champ, the free-spender. Damn, won’t be a broad I can’t have.
It was a shock which left Jake on the brink of a breakdown to finally realize all that would never be. The first time he thought it was one of those things—it happens to all fighters. But after the next few times he knew the truth. He had flashy skill, a punch in either hand, and sharp reflexes: the trouble was—and it was terribly frustrating trouble—he was like a complex and beautiful machine, but a machine which would never run because a simple bolt was missing.
It was rough to take. At times Jake still thought Arno was wrong, felt he could make it as a fighter. But Jake was hardly a fellow with much imagination, and except for these rare fights of fancy, he knew Arno was right, that he was done as a pug almost before he had started. If this had been in the old days, with hundreds of fight clubs, Jake might possibly have picked up some bucks, fighting here and there, leaving before anybody got wise to him. But Jake had been a child during the “old days.”
Even when he turned to being a muscleman with a small gang of cheap stick-up jerks and would-be angle sharpies, Jake realized the days of the strong-arm men were over, too. It was then that Arno had found him.
Jake rarely dreamed, and when he did he had only two kinds of dreams. One might concern some babe he’d recently seen on the street or in a bar. The other was always about Arno….
Now, Arno shook him awake, asked, “Didn’t you read the morning papers.” Arno was sucking on perfumed hard candies from Vienna.
“Sure.” Jake blinked. “You know, I start at the back and only look at the sport pages and the jokes. Why?”
Arno waved the folded paper in his hand. “The why is we got to make a fast trip to hocksville. I’ll need your star sapphire ring, the money clip with the diamond and… Cut the dumb look, you got ’em, haven’t you?”
Jake came awake fast. “Sure I have ’em. I thought we still had a grand?”
“We have. But we need another five hundred,” Arno said, sitting on the bed, spreading the paper so Jake could read about Tommy. “I’ve had a chat with Cork. He says this is all a numbers rap, needs five yards to get even.”
Jake skimmed through the news story, muttered, “Tight-mouthed old bastard never said a word when we were out running just now. Don’t say a word about no numbers here?”
Arno explained the real story Tommy had told him, ended with, “So we have to pay up. Otherwise in a week or so this Shorty joker may go to the cops or the goons. Either way Tommy will be no good to us.”
“I think this is great. Let the numbers boys kill him for us.”
“You think—you dummy! What if they had killed him last night? Most likely they’d merely break a leg, cripple him. Then where are we? Or suppose the cops throw his skinny ass in the can? No, we’re set, got our chips on the table, and we have to play the hand out. Maybe we’ll have to speed up things—if we can. That’s why I don’t want to touch our grand, that’s working money, gives us time to maneuver.”
“How come I’m always the one has to go to the hock shop?”
“Because you’re the thrifty ant, putting your dough in rocks. What you worrying about? You’ll get it back. You’ll be able to buy that set of diamond cufflinks, if the fence still has them.”
“The stuff I have now is hot,” Jake began.
Arno shook his head. “It was hot in California a year ago. Here it’s okay.”
Jake tried hard to think. All he could come up with was, “Why can’t we raise some dough on the car?”
“Because it’s dangerous. Depending on how things work out, we may not want to leave any traces. I can easily make us a grand with the car mortgage swindle. You don’t know that one—pick up a guy in a bar and offer him a hot bargain; three hundred interest for a one month loan of a one thousand on the car. He sees the car, the papers, and I insist he take a chattel mortgage on the car. He’s up the creek and can’t get his dough or the car because over six per cent is usury in this state and that cancels any agreements… Look, what are we wasting time with talk? Get your stuff, I’ll give you the pawn tickets. I’m sweetening the pot with my watch.”
“For a hundred, while I’m putting up four times as much to pay up a debt the dumb mick got into. Four to one, fine rooking you’re handing me.”
“I never asked you to save your dough, stupid, that’s for marks. Now give me the stuff and stop whining. Jake, don’t get me riled. I haven’t forgot you disobeying me, going with that whore. Just don’t get me sore.”
After Arno left for the nearest pawn shop, Jake had a hard time falling asleep—it took him at least five minutes. At times Arno’s smug manner gave him a hell of a pain. When he did doze off, Jake had his other favorite dream— where he was punching Arno’s fat face out of shape.
Around four in the afternoon Tommy dropped into the Between Rounds, accepted the good natured kidding of the bar regulars. He saw Alvin and Walt in a booth, talking earnestly over beers. Tommy walked over and heard Walt saying, “I don’t know, always thought I’d have more remorse at killing a man… even in the line of duty, as the saving goes. But it’s been business as usual with me all day long—to my amazement. Anyway, thanks for making me a detective, first grade.”
“Thank me? Congratulations, Walt, old man, you’ve certainly earned your promotion. And the hard way.”
Walt didn’t tell Alvin how bewildered he still was by the day’s happenings. He couldn’t explain that when he was called down to the headquarters in the morning he had expected to be broken to a beat cop. But with full publicity he had been promoted, the Commissioner himself giving Walt his new badge. Evidently the syndicate was as anxious as the police to keep things quiet. (A new man had been assigned to Big Burt’s territory twenty minutes after Burt died.)
Alvin asked, “I suppose you didn’t have time to check on Jake Watson’s fingerprints?”
“I did. I had most of the day off. Nothing, except I know his real name.”
Tommy sat down in the booth, all smiles, cutting in on Walt with, “Well you guys were all wrong about Arno! This morning, after I came in from the road, Arno was waiting for me. He’d read the papers. He says, ‘What’s the matter with you, Irish, fooling around with gangsters? Why you might have got yourself killed.’ Yes sir, Arno was all concerned and upset over me. To show you what an ace he is, when I told him about May… why an hour ago he took me down to the market and paid off Shorty James. Gave him five hundred bucks just like that. Of course, I owe it to Arno, but…”
“Who’s Shorty?” Alvin asked.
“Some fellow Tommy’s wife owed money to,” Walt said quickly, giving Tommy a slight kick under the table.
“Yeah, May happened to bust up his car,” Tommy said. “But the main thing is, Arno volunteered to pay the debt, said he didn’t want me worried. You see how wrong you were about him wanting to kill me? If that was so, Arno wouldn’t have been so concerned about last night.”
“By the way,” Walt said, “Jake Watson’s real name is Hal Bari. No real police record, except for some minor j.d. stuff.”
“So what?” Tommy asked. “Lots of pugs take fancy names, or they used to.”
Walt nodded. “Except they’re supposed to put their right name on their license application.”
“Wait a minute.” Alvin ran a long finger down a typewritten list of names. “Had my secretary check on all ring deaths in the last five years. Yes, thought that name rang a bell. Here it is. On March 17th, 1958, a fighter named Harold Barry killed a pug named Teddy Smith in the third round of a bout in a place called Preston, Utah!”
Walt glanced at the paper. “Hal—Harold. Barry—Bari… It’s too much of a coincidence.”
Tommy, who had been peering at the paper over Walt’s shoulder now said triumphantly, “Naw! Not only is the name spelled wrong, but look at this—Harold Barry weighed a hundred and thirty-five pounds, a lightweight. Why Jake is a good hundred and fifty pounds!”
Walt said slowly, “But in two years, a guy would grow, put on weight. Tell you, Al, for the first time I think you may have something.”
“Exactly what I’ve been trying to get through to you,” Alvin boomed. “Now what do we do?”
“We could alert the D. A. I suppose, but so far we haven’t any real proof. Even if Bari and Barry are the same guy, that still doesn’t prove any insurance tie-up or…”
“I shall wire the Preston papers for full information at once,” Hammer announced.
“It might help. What we need most is a run-down on this Arno. He isn’t listed with the Commission as Jake’s manager, either. I think our best bet is for the insurance company to cancel the policy and see what Arno’s reaction is. Of course, even if he dropped Tommy, it still wouldn’t be proof of anything.”
Tommy, who had been trying to hold himself in, now said softly but firmly, “You guys listen to me. Walt, I’ll never forget what you did for me. Same goes for you, Al. But I can’t blow my last chance to get some ring money. Now wait… I sure don’t plan on getting myself killed, either, but now that May is okay—I’m to call for her tonight and bring her back—well, that makes this opportunity all the more special. May and me getting together again—I got to make it this time. Like I said, you fellows have been swell to me, no doubting that, but so has Arno. But he couldn’t get me to turn on you two. Hell, I’m into him for over a grand now. I’m living good. I have a fight set for next week, and Arno has real plans for me. I can’t cancel the policy, do anything to make him sore. Walt’s a cop and he says we don’t have a thing to go on except Jake using a phony name. When I was a kid fighting bootleg bouts, I used a dozen names to keep the AAU from knowing. Another thing, Barry sounds Irish while Bari is probably Italian. What I’m trying to say, you guys are only guessing. I can’t risk everything I have going—on a bum guess.”
Alvin looked at Walt, who asked, “What did Arno tell you when you told him you had a fight set for next week?”
“He said fine, for me to train and to be sure and stay in shape, keep off the bottle,” Tommy said, thinking of the fine Irish whiskey he’d been nibbling on. “Of course, I’m doing that anyway.”
Alvin told them, “I wish I could get a look at this Arno and especially at Jake. I’ve seen a great many fighters in my time, and managers. Perhaps I’d remember them. Has Arno said anything more about you fighting Jake?”
Tommy gave him a pained look. “Al, for the love of Mike, keep your voice down, you ain’t broadcasting. I keep telling you that’s a big secret. No, he hasn’t said anything. I’m telling you, Arno is a sweet guy, leaves me alone, doesn’t rush me or nothing.”
“We have to play it careful and slow—policy won’t go into effect for at least another week,” Walt said. “But it also won’t hurt to get a look at these two. I’d like to see Arno, then check our rogues gallery. Tommy, your hotel is only a couple blocks from here. Suppose you call and tell them you left your money in your room, or lost your wallet—no, you left it in the gym—and you need a few bucks. They’ll bring it over and Al and I will be in this booth, while you wait at the bar.”
“I’d be an awful jerk doing a thing like that after Arno just went for a bundle on me,” Tommy said.
Walt didn’t say it, but the expression on his hard face said he had looked like a jerk last night, for Tommy’s sake. Alvin merely looked sad. Tommy shrugged and got up. He kept the door of the phone booth open, but held the receiver hook down as he went through the motions of dialing and talking. Then he returned to the booth, said, “They were out. Look, May’s waiting for me.”
“Has she got a room?”
“Won’t be no trouble getting one—now. But not in the market section. And May’ll be able to pick up a waitress job.”
Walt nodded, “Keep in touch, Tommy. Be sure and phone me if Arno mentions anything about you fighting Jake. In fact, let me know if Jake fights anybody. In general, watch yourself—keep out of their car, be careful what you eat.”
“Thanks for cheering me up!” Tommy said, winking. “Sure, I’ll see you fellows around. Don’t worry about me— and my Irish luck.”
When he left, Walt told Alvin, “Perhaps we are rushing. It is fantastic to plan on killing a guy in the ring. Even a shell like Tommy.”
Alvin patted the paper with the list of ring deaths. “I don’t see why you’re so cautious, Walt. These say it isn’t fantastic at all.”
Walt glanced at his watch and stood up. “Having supper with my wife. You see, Al, assuming Arno is a real clever crook, there’s too many loose factors to be certain of a ring death. The ref could stop the fight—we could—and a hundred other things could happen. Running him over with a car would be far more certain. The main doubt in my mind comes from what Tommy’s told us about Jake. With a fighter that good, no matter how he’d be pieced up by the mob, Arno and Jake could make much more than fifty grand in the long run. And with no risk. I can’t understand keeping a pug that good under wraps.”
“A gun is kept under wraps until it’s used,” Alvin said. “I’ll check on that Utah bit, let you know.”
“I’m going to do some checking myself,” Walt said, buttoning his overcoat. “I want to get ahold of this Arno’s prints, see what they reveal in the FBI’s crystal ball. And I’ll keep an eye on Tommy.”
“So will I,” Alvin said.
The moment he left the Between Rounds, Tommy ducked into the nearest bar for a fast belt. Over his second drink he thought, Lord, that was close! All I needed was to have Arno and Jake in the Between Rounds with all the fight boys there. I wish Walt and Al would leave me alone. They mean well but don’t know what they’re doing. An ex-amateur and a fight buff. What was it Bobby told me about the advice of the fans when I was starting as a pro? Yeah, yeah, fan is short for fanatic! Walt and Al, a couple of dumb fanatics! Well, I’ll have to play it cool and keep an eye on those poor dopes.”
Three days later, when he was off on his fifty-six hours swing, Walt went to see a patrolman named Pete who was a fingerprint technician. He told him about wanting to get a set of Arno Brewer’s prints, without telling Pete why. Scratching his thick blonde hair, which had almost landed him on the vice squad, Pete said, “Okay, you know I’m always willing to do you a favor. But when you start picking up prints unofficially, it can be a rough tab if there’s any complaint. Best place will be his hotel room. You know the house dick?”
“No. And the hotel would be too risky, even if we had the house man working with us. Arno might get curious and at this point I can’t do much explaining, as you notice. I thought of stopping him while he’s driving, but that’s also risky and might take too much time. I have a better thing going. Arno and his pug train every day at a small uptown gym which is more or less private due to the lack of fighters. I haven’t had a workout in a long time. Suppose we go up there this afternoon, you’re my manager, and see what Arno touches?”
“Okay, but you know prints aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Damn hard to get a decent set of prints unless the guy puts his paws on something flat, or grasps a glass, say, heavy enough so he’ll use all his fingers to hold it.”
“I know. I was thinking of the water bottle—Arno will probably be acting as a sort of second, I hope. The main thing is, not to let on we’re police officers, no matter what happens.”
Pete, who was a fairly slight man with a long lantern jaw, shrugged. “I’m with you only because I’ve nothing else on for this afternoon. I’ll be your manager and I hope I’m not sorry.”
“Sorry about what?”
“Walt, I haven’t got a nickel in this dime. It’s always the volunteers who end up with a hosing.”
“Pete, don’t get in an uproar. Worse comes to worse, I think I have enough to make it official.”
“Except you’re doing it on your own, which makes it unofficial. What’s with you? I was surprised when I read about you killing that punk. I always thought you were smarter than the eager-beaver type. You bucking for something?”
“Stop it. I’m merely doing a friend a favor, I think.” They reached the unheated gym, which had once been a small motion picture house, at noon. It had one ring, a mossy shower, and several bags. The owner was a glum ex-pug who complained when he took Walt’s two dollars, “TV killed movies so I got this dump cheap. But just when I get it paid off, it’s all mine, TV rains boxing. So I own a big fat hunk of nothing. Of course I sleep here, save room rent. But outside of a couple amateurs at night and a few busy weeks when the Golden Gloves is on, I ain’t got bread.”
“Ever think of selling or renting it to some youth organization?” Pete asked, brightly.
The old pug laughed, showing teeth so crooked they looked as if they’d been thrown into his thick gums. “You know one that wants to buy this gym? I’ll cut you in. No kidding.”
Walt undressed, giving his gun to Pete, then wearing old bunks and a sweatshirt, he came out and shadow-boxed to warm up. The gym owner said, “You move nice for a guy your size. But ain’t you a little old to be starting?”
“I boxed amateur, years ago. I figure with the shortage of heavys, I might make a comeback. I want to find out what kind of shape I’m in.”
“And if you’re in condition, where you going to get a bout?” the gym owner asked. He turned to Pete, who was standing around, hands in his windbreaker. “Ain’t no shortage of fighters, but of fights. The… Aw, why should I talk myself out of some business. I’ll be in my office over there if you want anything. I got some cheap tape and bandages, can get you a discount on ring togs, if anybody is silly enough to still manufacture ’em.”
Working out on the light and heavy bags, Walt was puffing after a round and realized how far out of fighting condition he really was. Old age and my recent workouts with Ruth, he thought, grinning at nothing as he remembered the old joke from grade school days—what a way to die. By one-thirty Arno and Jake still hadn’t showed and Pete whispered, “If they don’t come along soon, you’ll drop dead. Easy does it old man.”
“I’ll old man you,” Walt said, jabbing Pete lightly in the gut and then slamming a tremendous right into the heavy bag, as if to reassure himself.
Minutes later Arno walked in with Jake and Walt knew they were his men. He was impressed by their clothes. Jake dressed like a big-time fighter. As they disappeared into the locker room Walt shadow-boxed over to the owner’s office and casually asked, “That pug who just came in, is he a pro? Seems to me I’ve seen him around someplace. Where’s he from?”
“I don’t know. They’re two guys named Brown and Jones. I never laid eyes on either of ’em before they came here. The fighter looks like a hell of a good boy.”
As Walt forced his tired body through more rope skipping and stomach exercises, he watched Jake work out on the bags, impressed with the sure way Jake moved, the good body. This was indeed a pug who’d been around; it seemed impossible he could be so unknown. Even at its height the fight game was a small world and news went about fast.
Arno sat on a stool, nibbling on tiny hunks of dried fish, looking bored as he watched Jake work. Walt decided Arno could be an old-time bunko artist, or actually a retired businessman, but somehow the eyes shouted con man. Jake did three rounds of bag punching—and he beat the light bag like an expert drummer—skipped rope for another two rounds and wanted to quit. Arno told him, sharply, to go a few more rounds on the heavy bag.
The only thing Arno had touched so far was the back of the chair next to his stool. Pete glanced at Walt and shook his head. Jake had a soda bottle criss-crossed with tape, on the ring apron, which he was using as a water bottle. Walt nodded toward Pete, slipped on heavy gloves, and started into the ring to shadow-box. He ‘kicked’ the water bottle over. Walt went through the routine of trying to pick the bottle up with his gloved hands while Pete was busy setting his wrist watch. The gym owner yelled from the office to be careful of the canvas and started toward the ring, as Arno finally picked up the bottle—using all the fingers of his right hand.
Jake climbed into the ring to shadow-box, growled at Walt, “Why don’t you look what you’re doing?”
Arno walked over to the sink, washed the bottle, filled it, and carried it back to the ring apron—using both hands to hold the bottle while he took a drink himself. Then he sat down and returned to eating bits of fish. Pete smiled up at Walt.
“It was an accident,” Walt said, puffing a little as he boxed around Jake. “Nothing broke.” He sure has the face of a fighter, Walt thought. Not marked, but the slightly thickened nose, the hard eyebrows—the entire tough cast of his puss. In looks, anyway, he’s sure a champ.
When the bell gave them a minute’s rest, Walt told Jake, “I’m an amateur. You a pro?”
“What’s your name? Maybe I seen you box.”
“Floyd Patterson,” Jake said abruptly, turning away, loosening the muscles in his bull neck.
After another round Jake jumped out of the ring. He walked around for a few minutes, waving his arms, cooling off. He headed for the shower and the locker room, followed by Arno. Walt was standing outside the ring as Pete untied his gloves, Walt’s big body hiding the water bottle. He whispered to Pete, “Get the bottle under the other side of the ring apron and start working. How much time do you need?”
“Few minutes—if the bottle’s dry,” Pete said, pulling dusting powder and a roll of Scotch tape from his pocket. “Ah-ah, he’s coming back.”
Walt looked up to see Jake crossing the gym, his right glove still on. As Pete shoved his stuff back into his pocket, Walt leaned against the ring, covering the bottle. Jake glanced around the ring, the floor, the few seats. Then he asked, “You see my bottle?”
“Why, you training on whiskey?” Walt cornballed.
“Okay, wiseguy, it has to be…” He suddenly pushed Walt aside, picked up the bottle with his ungloved hand. In a hard voice he asked, “What’s the matter, you like to play games?”
Walt stared down at the smaller man. “Why? You know some interesting ones?”
“I know you give me a pain in the can,” Jake said, walloping Walt on the chin with his gloved hand. It was a short, hard blow. Walt went stiff as he fell back against the ring apron, then slid to the floor with a bang. With an evil grin Jake turned to Pete. “Want to sweep up your heavy, blondie?”
When Walt came to, finally got the gym in focus, he saw three faces bending over him: Pete’s long troubled face, the wrinkled and ugly puss of the gym owner, and Arno Brewer’s fat face smiling down at him—a glass of water in his hand. As Walt sat up, shaking his head to clear it, working his numb mouth and jaw, he realized his face was wet: Arno must have thrown a glass of water on him.
Walt stumbled to his feet, his face set as he looked around for Jake. Both the bottle and Jake were in the locker room. Pete said, “Easy, now.”
“That’s it,” Arno said smoothly. “Just because you’re big, no sense in acting that way. Calm down,” Arno turned, put the glass on the ring apron, and strolled toward the locker room.
The gym owner said, “You crazy? I don’t allow no rough-house in here. I got a baseball bat to…”
“Shut up,” Walt said, the movement of his mouth hurting him. So this is how a kayo feels, he thought. Except for the pain, not much different than waking up from a hard sleep. A…
“Listen, don’t tell me to shut up,” the gym owner said. “I ain’t afraid of you punks of today. And you don’t train here no more.” He reached for the glass. Pete suddenly put an arm around the owner’s shrunken shoulders, said, “Leave me handle him, mister. And leave the glass—get my fighter a drink.”
“You guys dress and scram. I’m not kidding about that baseball bat.” The old pug went back to his office.
Walt started for a chair, stumbled. Pete helped him. Walt sat very still for a moment, holding his head which had started to throb. Minutes later he saw Arno and Jake leave, Arno quietly bawling Jake out. Jake sent a quick glance at Walt, a cocky look. Walt said dully, “They must have dressed fast as firemen. Lord, did he clout me with the bottle?”
“They had plenty of time to dress,” Pete told him. “You’ve been out eleven minutes. By the clock. You sure got the full treatment. Thought you were dead, for a second. Gave me a bad turn. I…”
“Come on, see what you can find on the glass!”
Pete nodded. As he crouched under the ring and started dusting the glass, he glanced up at Walt, asked, “Are you okay?”
“Sure, only a mild headache.”
“I would have stepped in but I couldn’t pull my gun without giving us away as cops. That guy sure belted you. The punch didn’t travel more than six inches and… Hey, we have clear prints of at least three fingers. Maybe we’ll learn something.”
Still holding his head Walt said, half aloud, “I’ve already learned plenty. Our boy really has a murderous wallop.”
Sitting beside take, who was driving the flashy car, Arno was pale with anger. “… and of all the dumb moves! Suppose the big guy had clouted you, maybe cut your eye? Or…”
“He didn’t. Just a clumsy fat cat,” Jake cut in. He was feeling very good, the old dreams of himself as a champ flashing through his mind.
“And if he had? Told you we had to speed up our plans and you have to play things stupid! What if he’d been hurt, banged his noggin on the floor, and the cops had been called in? Don’t know what’s got into you recently, Jake, you’re acting…”
“I’m on edge, stale from training too much.”
Arno said, “No, you don’t—don’t ever try to kid the ladder. We forget this, but step out of line once more and I’ll really give you something to keep your mind on! I found a Spanish restaurant that looks good—real thing. You want to see a movie before or after supper?”
“I’d like some plain ham and eggs, for a change.”
Arno sighed, with disgust.
Waiting in the cafeteria for May, Tommy was worried, about May and about himself. He knew he should be feeling good. Arno’s plans were starting to take shape. Jake and Arno had left town that morning, said they’d be back in a few days. Although Arno didn’t say, and Tommy didn’t ask, Tommy thought from the way Jake had been training that he had a fight set. He was supposed to let Alvin or Walt know when Jake had a bout, but Tommy hadn’t said a word. For one thing, he didn’t know for sure.
It was now almost two months since he had signed with Arno and Tommy was pretty low, at times he was beginning to half believe Walt and Alvin. Even though Arno’s fingerprints hadn’t turned up a thing. Mostly Tommy doubted Arno could actually do much for him—and if that was the case, then why was Arno interested in him? Things seemed to move so slowly. At other times Tommy wondered what he was worrying about. If Arno didn’t complain why should he?
But for the first time in his career Tommy was impatient, had doubts about the whole fight game. For one thing, he suddenly seemed to be growing old very fast, every wasted day was like a month. He found himself bored and dreading the training grind, feeling very tired at the end of the day. Even a few belts of Arno’s whiskey no longer relaxed him. He had won the stand-by four-rounder at Bobby’s arena two weeks before in convincing style—a TKO in the third round. Oddly enough, winning the bout had upset him more than any of Alvin’s ravings about murder. He had been up against a strong kid having his first bout. It made Tommy realize his own ring status. A vet of over one hundred fights in with a kid having his first bout. And he had felt sorry for the boy. In the old days a kid like this might have had a chance to get someplace—at times he moved with natural grace—but the boy didn’t have the smallest idea what boxing was all about, slugged wildly. Tommy had outboxed him with ease, grand-standing at times. In the second round he had been tagged by a glancing left to the stomach, but Cork’s own left hook had cut the kid’s eye. A cut can take all the fight out of even an experienced pug and Tommy knew the kid was finished. In the third Tommy’s jabs had stung the eye until blood covered the kid’s bewildered face. Tommy dropped him with a neat right and the ref stopped the fight, even though the boy was up at three.
The fans had given Tommy a big hand, Alvin bubbled with praise, and even Bobby said Irish had been his old self. Arno had given him a bottle of expensive whiskey and a pat on the back. But Tommy knew how tired and empty he’d been in the second round. If the left to the belly had been a solid punch he would have gone down. Cork couldn’t understand it. With steady training and eating he should have breezed through a lousy four-rounder. The following day, as the gym hangers-on were telling him how sharp he looked, Tommy had pestered Becker for another bout.
Bobby shook his head. “You showed so good the managers ain’t keen on throwing their kids in with you. Before, they figured you were a sure win and exercise for their boys.” That same afternoon, over a drink in the Between Rounds, when Tommy complained about lack of bouts to a ranking feather-weight, the other fighter had asked, “What are you hissing and moaning about? You had five or seven bouts the last year. Sure, they were all emergency fights, but take me—rusty as an old gate—haven’t had a bout in over ten months.”
Tommy was startled to realize that even with his half a dozen fights he hadn’t made five hundred for the year. If the thought of the fight game really being done disturbed him, Walt’s constant snooping also annoyed Tommy. He was afraid the detective might come up with the true answer. They still hadn’t proof of anything—yet. Alvin found out the pug killed by this Harold Barry had been insured for five grand. The beneficiary was one Samuel Smith, and who he was nobody knew. Alvin was certain he could rum up other ring deaths at the fists of Barry.
All this made Tommy uneasy. Some days Tommy was sure Walt and Alvin were ruining his chances with their snooping, telling him to cancel the policy. On other days, like tonight, Tommy felt as if his Irish luck was dead; if Arno wasn’t actually planning on murdering him, he was merely a bungling rich man incapable of ever getting Jake or Tommy a big payday.
Ruth had to tell May of Walt’s suspicions and she had been carrying on. All told it had been a lousy Christmas. Tommy had been able to buy May a cheap dress but they had lost out on the apartment. May-was also down in the dumps. Ruth had found her a job as a file clerk on the Make-Up Age and while May had been flattered, at first, to have an office job, after a week the work gave her a headache and she was now picking up dishes in a chain restaurant.
As May entered the cafeteria, bundled in an old coat, her eyes hunting for Tommy, he thought she looked good. And it gave him a warm feeling to know her eyes were only for him. He stood to show her where he was sitting. Her face was flushed with the cold and she seemed to have gained a few pounds. He squeezed her hand, asked what she wanted for supper. May said, “Oh, I ate on the job. Tom, I have a lead on another apartment! The cook on the job has a house out in Bayside and he expects the family in the basement to move soon. I understand it’s a large private house and against the zoning laws to have two apartments. The point is, he can’t advertise. It’s two small rooms, kitchen and bath. He wants fifty-five a month. It’s also two bus fares from my job but… Oh, Tom, best of all, he’ll let us have some furniture he has in the attic… but what’s the use, if you don’t get a job.”
“Don’t start that, honey. Give me more time to see what Arno will do for me.”
“He’ll kill you!” May said, eyes tearing.
Tommy reached over the table, pressed her hand. “Come on, May, don’t spoil our evening. I keep telling you not to listen to Ruth and Walt. After all, Arno has been keeping me all these weeks, and he was damn good about not taking his cut out of my last bout—said he’d wait until I made a good purse. But let’s forget all that. Listen, he and Jake are out of town and they gave me eating money for the next couple days. I was thinking, let’s you and me take in a movie and spend the night in my room.”
“Tom Cork, you expect me to go up to a hotel room like a…?”
He grinned at her. “What’s wrong with it, May? We’re married and it’s been a long time for us. Come on, let’s step out for a change. Al gave me tickets for a TV show but I’d rather take in a movie, like old times.”
She dried her eyes with a napkin. “I’d love a movie, but… Maybe we can go to my room?”
He shook his head. “Naw, the hotel is classy. Please, May. Please.”
Tommy didn’t tell her he’d also touched Bobby for a ten spot. They went to a movie which had a stage show and cost a dollar-eighty each. May enjoyed it except she was so tired she slept during most of the motion picture. Then they went out and had Chinese food and May even took a cocktail. Although she was unhappy about going to his hotel, she went, and the room clerk never even glanced at her. They slept late, Tommy skipping his roadwork, but in the morning she cried in his arms, begging him to leave Arno, find a job. “Tom, Tom, don’t you see, it can be like this every night if we have our own place, steady money coming in. The bus boys get forty dollars a week in my restaurant, and meals. Shall I ask for you?”
“Gee, May, it means I’m through. May, why can’t we wait a little longer? Give my luck its last fling. One or two main events and I’ll have a couple thousand to put down on a rooming-house. Well be in business for…”
“And maybe I’ll be a widow!”
“That’s no way to talk. Look, neither Alvin or Walt have come up with any real proof. You think I want to get myself killed? Let’s make a deal. You said we can’t get this apartment right away, the tenant may not move for a month or so. Okay, by the time the guy is ready to move, if Arno hasn’t done anything for me, or if Walt comes up with any real facts, then I’ll quit the ring and get a job.” Tommy added, to himself, “If I can get a job.”
“I’m afraid for you.”
“For Irish Cork? Remember, you were afraid when I first started fighting. Honey, I can handle myself in the ring, you know that. There’s another thing, if I quit now—I mean if Arno isn’t the one who gives up on me—why I’m into him for nearly sixteen hundred bucks. I guess he could sue me, take it out of my salary each week, if I had a job. Then where would we be?”
“Then it’s hopeless.”
“No, no. Look, with the hard time I’m having getting bouts because I looked so sharp in my last fight, why in a month or two, Arno may see he can’t work his deal and break things off himself. But if he should get me bouts, or start building Jake up, why… Then we’ll take the apartment anyway! This hotel room rents for twenty-eight dollars a week, and he gives me eating money. Ill work out a deal where he gives me the dough and I live and eat with you in the apartment. I’ll be bringing home as much as if I was working. Honey, you tell the cook today we’ll take the place! Either way, we’ll make it.”
“You make it sound good. But I worry so. If you took a job now…”
“And be sued? Don’t forget, I still may be champ!”
“I never forget. Be a champ, Tom.” May turned away and he ran his hand over her tiny, thin breasts, marveling as he always did at the pale pink of her nipples.
“Hon, the crazy way things are in the game, within a year I can be up in the money. I’ll buy you a big house of your own. And we’ll even take that trip to Ireland.” He kissed her nipples as he asked, “Would you like seeing Ireland?”
“I suppose so. Yes, I’d love that,” May said, holding back her tears. Suddenly she pushed his mouth back on her breasts, said quietly, “Ah, kiss me again. It makes me feel so… so young and… pretty. Ah, my Tom, my Tom.”
At noon they dressed and went downstairs and had breakfast. Tom said, ‘Isn’t this something, living in a nice hotel?”
May nodded. “I’ll only take coffee. Sinful to spend money on food when I can eat on my job. Tom, I feel good, like singing.”
“Well do plenty of singing yet, May. You wait and see.”
“Yes, we will. I believe it. Right this minute I believe God will grant us happiness. I believe… Look at the time. I have to scoot.”
Tommy felt so swell himself he went over to the gym but didn’t train, merely hung around, pestering Bobby for a bout. He put two bucks on a horse named Deep Green, sat around and read a morning paper. Alvin asked how he’d liked the TV show and Tommy said it had been great. Later in the afternoon he returned to his room and took a few nips out of a pint Arno had given him. He listened to the radio for a while, thought about entering a contest, and went to sleep. It was midnight when he awoke and although he was hungry, he merely took a warm bath, a few more shots of whiskey, and went back to sleep.
When he got up in the morning he felt dizzy from lack of food but couldn’t eat if he was going to run. He took a last sip of the bottle to keep him going and went over to the park. After running a few blocks he felt tired and walked for a half hour. On the way back to the hotel he stopped into a cheap stool joint, had coffee and a sandwich.
He saw the car parked in front of the hotel and found Arno and Jake in the hallway outside his room. Jake had a slight mouse under his left eye. Arno said, talking indirectly to Jake, “See, here’s a man who won’t be puffing after the fifth round. I told Jake you were out on the road.”
“You have a bout?” Cork asked.
Jake nodded and said, “All this driving has left me bushed. I’m going to hit the sack.” He shut the door to their room and Arno followed Tommy into his, asked, “Got a drink handy?”
Tommy took the bottle from the drawer and Arno said nothing about it being almost empty. He poured two drinks, killing the bottle, and smiled at Tommy as he whispered, “We’re on our way! I got Jake a fight last night. Took him a few rounds to warm up, but he won by a clean knockout. Made quite an impression.”
“Where’d he fight?”
“Way out of town. Little club but they only see one TV channel there, and no fights. I can get Jake another match any time I want. The build up is on.” Arno actually rubbed his hands together. “Also had the most delicious cherry cider up there. Real spicy and…”
“How about me?”
“I have plans for you. Just remember, all this has to be kept quiet. I mentioned you to the promoter, he was interested in your record. We’re moving up, Tommy lad. But not a word to anybody.”
“Who would I talk to?”
Arno stood up. “Have breakfast? I’m going down for potato pancakes.”
“Naw, I’m full of Java. Think I’ll take a shower and get some sack time.”
In the gym that afternoon Tommy glanced through the morning papers, didn’t see Jake’s name or any out of town fight results except for a fight down in Australia. But he knew the papers usually listed only the bigger bouts. Jake wouldn’t be mentioned anyway, unless he’d been in a main go.
Cork trained hard, refusing to let himself be tired. This sure proves, he thought, Arno is on the level. What a smart cookie, picking a town off TV limits—the only place a fight club can make it. Wonder how he’ll build Jake up? Even if he puts me in with Jake, a main event in a hick town only means a five hundred buck purse to split. But dough don’t mean a thing to Arno. He must have his angles working—perhaps this hick promoter will lure in a good welter for Jake to flatten, or I will, then we get an offer to fight here, a TV deal. But Arno will have to piece Jake off before they’ll let him show here, and he said he doesn’t want that. I’ll have to explain to Arno about keeping Jake under wraps, not looking too great, or he’ll never land us a main….
Alvin Hammer came across the floor, moving carefully between the heavy bags, by far the tallest man in the gym. He whispered like a conspirator, “Irish, anything shaking?”
Tommy had been so deep in thought as he stepped around the big bag, he hadn’t seen Al. He jumped, said, “You scared the daylights out of me. Don’t ever creep up on me.”
“Arno say anything new? Jake had any fights?”
“Naw,” Tommy lied.
“They’ll be moving soon, old cock. You must let me or Walt know the second Jake fights, or anything new pops.”
“Sure,” Tommy said and suddenly he was full of a depressing weariness, decided to call it quits for the day.
The next few days passed in the usual routine: road-work, gym, hanging around the Between Rounds Bar and chewing the fat, having supper with May as often as she could make it—yet Tommy was full of a restless tension. He’d only felt this once before, the time when May lost the baby and was in the hospital. Now he had the same feeling of waiting for something to happen, something bad. Even in his gym workouts he was listless, always tired, and the half-filled gym gave him the feeling of training in a graveyard. Although he kept pestering Bobby, and any other promoter he saw around the gym, for a bout, and tried to keep himself in shape, in case of the last-minute need for a substitute on any card. He didn’t have his heart in it, felt it was hopeless.
One afternoon Walt Steiner was waiting outside the gym and the second Walt asked if anything new had come up with Jake or Arno, Tommy snapped, “Goddamit, leave me alone! You and Al keep after me and after me, even got May doing it. You think I’m a child, an idiot? If I learn anything, I’ll let you know.”
Walt said, “Don’t be so jumpy. I’m only trying to…”
“I know, but lay off me for a while.” Tommy suddenly landed a mock left on Walt’s shoulder. “Don’t pay me no mind. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m on edge all the time.”
“Perhaps you’re stale?”
Tommy’s thin face brightened. “Yeah, that could be the ticket. I haven’t been training this hard for a long time.”
In the hotel room, Tommy took a good hooker and stretched out on the bed. But sleep didn’t come. He lay there, his mind racing; thinking of everything and nothing. When Arno came in to ask if he wanted to eat Spanish food with him for supper, Tommy said, “I haven’t missed a day’s training in a month now, and hitting the road every morning, I think I’m going stale. Okay if I take it easy for a few days?”
“Sure. You know all about keeping in shape. You certainly have been training faithfully and I appreciate it. Tell you what, Tommy, suppose you and I go out on the town tonight?”
“That’ll be fine.”
“I’ll get a couple of girls and well make the rounds of the gin mills.”
“I’m a married man. That is, skip the girls for me.” Arno gave him a fat smile. “You haven’t been married long enough or you wouldn’t talk like that. Okay, no gals. When we get to the top and you’re fighting at the Garden, I’ll show you a time on Broadway. Sure like to be in old New York City right now. Look, I’ll call for you in a few hours.”
Tommy walked over to May’s rooming house and left a note explaining why he couldn’t have supper with her at nine. When he came back to the hotel, Arno was waiting. Tommy asked where Jake was and Arno said, “In bed. And he’d better stay there. I wish he had your determination, trained the way you do.”
Actually Tommy hadn’t been in a night club more than twice in his life, he was strictly a bar man. Arno was out for a big evening and they visited several spots, watched the floor shows, drank heavily, even had pictures taken toasting each other. Arno was full of corny jokes and stories about the various cities he’d lived in—Havana, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York. Tommy talked about the only thing he knew, boxing… his fight with Robinson. He thought Arno was a hell of a good guy and several times was on the verge of telling him about Alvin and his crazy suspicions.
Arno was drinking Scotch and milk and Tommy was taking his whiskey straight. By two in the morning Arno was still fairly sober while Tommy was nearly stiff. The elevator operator had to help Arno walk Tommy to his room. They dropped Cork on his bed and as Arno loosened his belt and collar, the elevator man said, “He sure is carrying a load.”
“Fighters have to unwind, I suppose,” Arno said. “We’ll let him sleep it off.”
“Want me to open the window a crack?”
Arno shook his head. “No, he might catch a cold. All he needs is sleep.”
Jake awoke when Arno shook him. It was always hard for Jake to leave sleep. Now, he sat up and thought how old Arno looked, the bloodshot eyes and nose, wrinkles in the doughy face. Then he glanced at his wrist watch, snapped, “What’s the matter with you, it’s only seven o’clock?”
“Get Tommy on the road. Run the hell out of him. I had him good and crocked last night. He’ll want to sleep but talk him into running. He’s in bad shape.” Arno yawned. “I’m beat myself. Come on, get going.”
Jake stepped out of bed, shivered with the early morning cold. As he dressed, he watched Arno slip back into the comfort of his bed. On the dresser he saw several pictures of Arno and Tommy drinking in the night spots. “You had a rough night.”
“What?” Arno mumbled, watching him through half-closed eyes.
Jake waved the pictures at him. “You’re beat, huh? I bet!”
“Come on, we’re on the last lap now,” Arno said, turning his back, but watching Jake in the dressing mirror, “so stop being a dummy. Those photos are a little insurance, in case anything goes wrong, just in case, they’re proof of what great pals Tommy and I were. Get going!”
Tommy was sprawled across the bed, still wearing his clothes, including his overcoat and shoes. When Jake shook him Tommy moaned, “Go way.”
“Wake up, Pops.” Jake slapped his face.
Tommy sat up slowly, rubbing his cheek, blinking and trying to swallow the thick taste in his mouth.
Jake was dressed for the road and said, “Come on to the park with me. I don’t like to run alone.”
“Not this morning.”
Jake laughed. “Your room smells like an old bottle. Look at you, didn’t even undress. I see you’re training to be a champ—a champ rummy. I warned Arno you’d never snap out of the bottle. Go back to sleeping it off, old man.” Jake started for the door.
Tommy struggled out of bed. “I’ll meet you in the lobby in ten minutes.” Tommy rushed to the bathroom and before he left his room, took a nip to “quiet” his stomach.
They took a long run, Jake full of pep and sarcasm. Tommy kept up with him, his head hurting. He felt exhausted. When they returned to the hotel Tommy breakfasted on a pint of milk and went right to bed. A few minutes later Arno came into his room and asked, “How do you feel after last night?”
“Okay.” Tommy wondered how long he’d slept, didn’t know it had been only a few minutes.
“How about sparring a few rounds with Jake? I know you want to take the day off, but just a few rounds. I can’t use any other sparring partners—you know.”
“My stomach is kind of upset. I was on the road this morning and…”
Arno’s round face showed mild horror. “After last night? What did you run for?”
“I don’t know,” Tommy said, trying to collect his thoughts. “Jake asked me to and I did.”
“I want to keep Jake sharp, but we’ll skip the sparring. You get your rest.”
“No, no, I’m okay,” Tommy said. “I’ll get my things from the gym and meet you guys uptown.”
“Well, if you think you’re up to it….”
Tommy grinned. “I’m fine. How soon you want me up there?”
“At noon. And remember, not a word—you know.”
He and Jake went six fast rounds. Tommy was sober and the exercise seemed to give him pep. He jabbed and out-boxed Jake in the early rounds, but began to tire fast after the third round. Arno called out, “Take it easy, Jake,” and Jake never tried to hit Tommy’s face, but gave him a hard body pounding. After the fourth round Arno told Tommy, “You’d better knock off for the day. I’ll have Jake shadow-box the next couple of rounds.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m feeling fine,” Tommy said, not wanting to admit he was bushed. “I’ll go another two rounds.”
After the workout, his body sore, he nearly went to sleep on the rubbing table. Arno asked if his stomach was still acting up and took him to a bar for blackberry brandy and a few drinks.
May was off at six that night and when they met in the cafeteria she sniffed after his kiss, said, “You’ve been boozing again.”
“Arno took me on the town last night. I told you he’s a pal. I bet he spent at least fifty bucks and…”
“I don’t care what he spent. Look at you, all pale. You need a good bowl of soup.”
“I don’t want any food,” Tommy said, nearly throwing up at the thought. “And stop lecturing me. I’ve been training so hard I’m stale, needed a few shots. Get a good night’s sleep and I’ll be tip-top.”
But May kept nagging him about drinking and when was he going to quit Arno. And Tommy was relieved when she said she had a date with Ruth that night. Something about a story Ruth was doing. May was to talk into a tape recorder, or something. May wasn’t sure what it was all about. She wanted Tommy to come along, since Ruth wanted to have May talk about the “old days,” but he begged off. After he promised to eat a “decent” meal before going to sleep, she left him.
Tommy stopped for a few beers, still feeling giddy with tiredness, and when he got to his room and undressed, Arno came in with a bottle and they had a few drinks. Arno told Tommy to get some sleep and he’d leave the bottle on the bed table.
Tommy was so overtired he took a few big belts and finished the bottle. The next thing he knew it was noon and the sun streaming through the window was sickly hot on his face. Arno was grinning down at him, fully dressed. Jake was leaning against the door. Arno said, “Get your things on, Tommy. We’re leaving town.”
“W-what for?” Tommy’s head was full of sickly cobwebs and he kept his hands under the covers because he knew he had the shakes.
“I got a phone call this morning. We got us a fight for tomorrow.”
“Out of town. Don’t worry about the details.”
Tommy tried hard to gather his drunken thoughts.
“I’m not in…”
“You’ll be fine by tomorrow. And you don’t have to be in shape for this one.” Arno winked at Tommy and put a finger across his lips as he motioned with his head toward the door and Jake.
“But what?” Arno asked abruptly.
“I thought we’d wait for a main event?”
In what was either a whisper or merely keeping his voice low, Arno bent over and told Tommy, “This matchmaker is very hot for Jake, so I figure at this stage, why risk anything going wrong? What if they throw Jake in with a guy who holds all night, and the fight is a stinker? The promoter won’t be keen to have Jake back again. We clinch it by you taking a dive—make it look like a fast, clean kayo, in the first round. Then you can claim you never had a chance to get started, ask for a return bout. Perhaps you’ll floor Jake first, then he gets up and you dive—slambang stuff. Make the return go a main event. We have a long drive ahead of us.-We’ll iron out the details.”
Tommy took a quick cold shower, tried to think straight— with his mind still clogged with drunken slush. “Why the whispering act?” he asked himself. “Jake has to be in on this. Or was Arno whispering? Maybe my ears are foggy. “I’ll be seeing pink leprechauns next. And maybe this is it, like Walt warned me? Now why think like that? Doesn’t it also show Arno really had a plan all the time, like he said? Sure, after feeling so low, resting my luck, now it’s working for me again. Damn, cold water feels good, stopped the shakes.”
He dressed and as he was packing his bag he said, “I’ll have to go by the gym and get my ring stuff.”
“You have your shoes and protector from sparring with Jake yesterday. I’ve bought you a set of new trunks. No time to waste, have to be up there to close the deal.”
Tommy nodded, suspicion flooding his hazy mind. Still, trunks were only a few bucks and if they really were in a hurry…. The rough knot of tension inside him began to slowly uncoil. Closing his bag, he asked, “Have we time to grab a bite?”
“We’ll stop on the road for chow, Pops,” Jake said.
Tommy tried again to clear his mind of sudden doubt. Was it his imagination or was Jake really nervous? Why be on edge for a fight which was in the bag? And why hadn’t Arno closed the deal over the phone? This wasn’t any last minute substitution, why all the big hurry? But then, some things couldn’t be said over the phone.
Now I’m in a fine spot, Tommy thought. If I don’t call them—when they learn I’ve battled Jake—Walt and Al will be sore as boils. At the same time, I don’t want them spoiling this payday for me. Hell, they have been good friends. What harm can phoning them do? I’ll be in a big rush and they’ll sputter, over the phone, and I’ll have kept my end. What the devil was Walt’s number? I can phone May. No, she won’t be on the job yet. And I don’t want to hear her crying. Hell with it.
But as he was closing the door, Tommy told them, “Say, I got to make a call. Only take a second. My bookie owes me a few bucks and I want to tell him I won’t be around, to hold it. I’ll stop at the cigar store in the lobby and…”
Arno pushed the door back, pointed to the hotel phone on the table. “You might as well make it now. But be quick.”
“Sure,” Tommy said, sorry he’d started the whole thing, suspicion rising strong within him again. And it would certainly sound ‘funny’ to Arno if he called a precinct house or a TV office now, with them listening. But why where they listening? Aw, here I go again, jittery as a kid having his first bout. The phone is right here, so Arno says make the call here. What’s wrong with that?
He told the operator, “Let me have the number of a magazine called the Make-Up Age.” Tommy grinned at Arno over the receiver. “My bookie is sharp, uses this for a front— gets all his calls through his wife.”
“That won’t save him if the cops are out to bust him,” Arno said. “All these bright slobs who think…”
“What are we standing around and gassing so much for?” Jake asked, his voice practically a growl.
Tommy held up a hand for silence, asked for Ruth and told her, “This is Tommy Cork. Please tell your husband I’m leaving town for a few days, to hold my back pay for me. He’ll know what it’s all about.”
“Tommy, what is it?” Ruth asked. “Can you talk? Where are you going? Are you boxing?”
“Just tell him I’ll be out of town on business and not to give my dough to anybody until I come back. Good-bye.”
Downstairs, as they got into the flashy car, Arno asked Tommy, “Want to drive?”
“Get on the parkway and head upstate. I’ll take over the wheel later. We have a good six hour drive ahead of us. Want some mint toffee?”
Tommy made a face as he shook his head.
Arno winked, pulled a pint of brandy from his inside pocket. “Take a nip of this—for the cold air.”
The brandy immediately quieted his nerves and Tommy drove for several hours. Being behind the wheel of a powerful car eased his mind, gave him a sense of well being. The big car, a bout coming up, main event soon, maybe, things were breaking. Even from this purse, depending upon how much Arno took out, he’d have enough for the first month’s rent on the apartment. Give May the dough to hold. That would make her happy. “Guy is giving me bread,” he told himself, “and me acting coy as a schoolgirl being seduced. Silly to have even tried to call Walt. Naw, maybe it was a smart move. He can’t reach me, possibly stop the fight, even if he gets the message. We can be fighting in any one of five or six states, and not being a main go, won’t be listed. Neither will the results, so he and Alvin will never know. Okay, I tried to call him. That gets me off the hook. I don’t know what’s the matter with me this morning. Being hung-over never made me this upset before.”
They stopped for lunch at noon and Tommy ate a big meal and felt fine. When he went to the John Jake went along. Jake seemed moody and even more sullen than usual. When Tommy said, “You’re a regular hot chatterbox today,” Jake snapped, “I’m always on edge before a fight?”
“Even this one?” Tommy asked, wondering if he was talking out of turn.
“Pops, leave me alone.”
Arno took the wheel and when Tommy asked where they were going, Arno said, “Benson Harbor. Pretty good fight town.”
They reached Benson Harbor two hours later and checked into a hotel—each of them taking different rooms. It was a second-rate hotel, without phones in the rooms, or baths. When Tommy went out to wash, Arno opened his door and came out, towel in hand. As they cleaned up he told Tommy, “The matchmaker will be over in a few minutes, with contracts to sign. Don’t forget, you’re your own manager. It’s a six-round semi-final and you’re getting one hundred and twenty dollars—so is Jake.”
“Good. Listen, it’s about time you started taking your cut. Take fifty per cent of this one….”
Arno patted him on the back. “Of these two-bit purses? You keep it all. When you’re pulling down five or six thousand a fight, I’ll get mine.”
Tommy was too happy to say a word.
The matchmaker was a thin man in tacky clothes. Tommy had never seen or heard of him before. The matchmaker told him, “You get examined by the doc and weigh in at noon tomorrow. You really fight Robinson, all those others?”
“Sure, I’m one of the last true Irish pugs fighting and one of the few hundred-bout guys going today.”
“I hope you fight as good as you talk. On account of the Harbor being out of range of most TV stations, we still draw a pretty good crowd here. My fans like action.”
“All fans do,” Tommy said.
When the promoter left, Tommy stretched out on his bed but before he could get any sleep, Arno came in. Sitting on the bed, he offered Tommy a belt of brandy but Cork turned it down. “My stomach is finally holding its own. Want to keep it that way.”
Arno shrugged and took a drink himself. “They say Spanish brandy is the best. Not so. This stuff, from grapes grown in the Azores, has a body all its own. Listen now, won’t be good for us to be seen together too much. Well all eat in the joint downstairs at five-thirty sharp, but we’ll sit at different tables. Act natural. I mean we can know each other but not be too friendly. Then at seven we’ll be back in our rooms, get a good night’s rest. Remember, it’s always some little unseen bit that throws a deal, so we’ll be careful. Don’t talk to anybody, or get lost. Understand?” Tommy nodded.
Arno made for the door. “You have an hour before supper. Get some rest.”
There was a luncheonette next to the hotel and on the other side a small liquor store. Tommy, Arno and Jake drifted into the luncheonette, had a good supper. Tommy finished first and went back through the lobby, passing several phone booths, and out the other side entrance. At the liquor store he bought a Dint, then reached the lobby as Arno was coming in from the luncheonette. Tommy stood by the large window which was the front of the lobby, watching the people passing by on the main street. The Harbor looked like a neat little town and he wanted to walk around. Being big city born, all small cities filled him with a patronizing curiosity. But Tommy saw Arno plant himself in one of the ancient leather lobby chairs and read a paper. Jake bought a magazine and went up to his room. After a few minutes Arno stood up and yawned; Tommy took the hint, went to his room. Undressing slowly, he drank a long nip from the pint and hid it in his bag.
There was a small radio chained to the table and he turned that on, listened to a local station. He was quite pleased when an announcer with a twangy voice said, ”… In sports, tomorrow night the Harbor Arena has what looks like a thrilling semi-final. Jake Watson versus Irish Tommy Cork. We all recall Watson as the dynamic puncher who thrilled fans a few shows ago with a whistling knockout. Cork, although a newcomer to these parts, is an Irish ring veteran with well over a hundred fights behind him. He’s met Robinson, Olson, Hart, and most of the top fighters in his class… In baseball news, word comes from Havana that…”
Tommy was so delighted he sat up in bed and waved at himself in the dresser mirror—wished May could have heard the broadcast. He hadn’t had a build-up like this in years.
He decided to take a tiny nightcap and was turning out the light at eight-thirty, the bed feeling comfortable as heaven, when Arno knocked softly, then came into the room.
Belching a little, Arno said, “Guy that runs that stool joint should be arrested. The difference between messing food and cooking is only common sense but so many jerks… Are you tired?”
“No,” Tommy lied, thinking Arno had come to discuss the fight.
“I’m not sleepy either. I’d get a bottle except I don’t want you drinking the night before a fight. Play gin?”
“No. How about casino?”
They played until eleven with Tommy fighting to keep his eyes open. Finally Arno yawned and said it was time for bed. Tommy dozed off the second he was alone. He awoke at seven to go to the John, still feeling pooped. Walking back to his room he saw Arno standing in the doorway of his own room, his round face tired and bleary-eyed. He mumbled, “Next time I’ll take my own food along. Couldn’t get a wink last night.”
“I slept like a log. Think I’ll get something to eat and take a walk.”
“That’s an idea. I’ll go along, but we won’t walk together.”
Tommy got in another hour’s sleep and at noon he was in a doctor’s office where several other pugs—all kids—were also waiting for an examination. Tommy smiled at the kids, thought, I’m sure getting to be the grand old man of boxing, don’t know a one of these muscle-heads.
Jake came in and merely nodded at Tommy. Arno, of course, wasn’t around. The examination took only a few seconds. They all weighed in and when Tommy started for the scales the doctor said, “Wait a minute. Are you limping, Mr. Cork?”
“I’ve had a stiff toe. Had it for years now. It’s okay, doesn’t stop me from boxing or running,” Tommy said fast, fear that he’d lose the fight freezing his insides.
“Well, I don’t know,” the doctor said. “Better let me see your foot.”
As Tommy slipped off his shoes, the matchmaker came forward and told the doc, “Henry, Tommy has had over a hundred bouts, means a hundred doctors have passed him.”
“That’s right. Why I’ve had this bad toe ever since I was a kid,” Tommy said, glancing at Jake, who seemed pale.
The doc merely felt of the toe and then said, “All right. Get on the scale.”
Tommy and Jake weighed in at the same weight—a hundred and forty-four pounds. Tommy was surprised. Jake must have been working hard. He usually had five or six pounds on Tommy.
They went back to the hotel and Tommy got in an hour’s nap before they all went down for a light supper. Arno had also got in some sleep and looked better. Jake seemed very jumpy. Going upstairs, Arno whispered, “Come to my room, Tommy. We need to have a talk.”
When he opened the door, ten minutes later, Arno was stretched out on the bed, an ash tray resting on his stomach, a cigarette in his mouth. Tommy sat on the foot of the bed; Arno said, “Since you know more about boxing than I ever will, I want your advice. But first I’ll give you my views on our deal. We’re after two things. We want to make Jake look spectacular, have the fans gasping to see him again. At the same time we want a return bout. Right?”
Tommy nodded, thinking, Jake is a hell of a spectacular fighter without any build-up.
Arno blew smoke at the ceiling. “I’ve talked it over with Jake and we have this plan….”
Tommy laughed. “I was wondering if Jake was in on it, the way you been whispering.”
“I hardly want to broadcast our plans. Of course Jake knows. He has to. We think it should go like this: Jake rushes out and pulls you into a comer. You act surprised at his rough tactics. He hits you and you go down.”
“No room to roll with a punch in a comer, and Jake hits hard.”
“Naturally, Jake will pull his punches. And you do the same—that’s understood. Now, you take the eight count and get up, stagger a little. Don’t overdo it and let the ref stop it. You left hook Jake and he drops. He’s up fast, acts mad as hell, but the ref makes him take the mandatory eight count. While standing in the opposite corner you still act groggy. Jake rushes over and lands a right as you jab. You go down for the full count. This last fall has to look good. Act stiff.”
“I know, I’d be stiff but with my feet kicking a little.”
Arno crushed his cigarette in the ashtray, tossed a mint into his mouth, held the package out toward Tommy—who shook his head. Arno said, “Sounds fine. If this doesn’t get the fans into an uproar for a return bout, I don’t know what will. Now, as you leave the ring there’ll be some fans telling you tough luck and all that. Always a couple—and you say, loudly, you were caught napping, will flatten Jake the next time out. Main thing, make sure Jake can hit you with his right in the comer. And he’ll leave an opening for your left… when he’s to hit the canvas. Any suggestions?”
“Nope. Be sure to tell Jake not to get excited, be certain he pulls his punch, only don’t make it look that way. Perhaps we should have practiced this.”
“Look, you’re both pros. It will play smooth. Be sure you pull your left. You have the best in the business.”
Tommy grinned as he stood up, walked toward the door. He opened it a crack, turned to Arno, “How do you plan on getting Jake from here to a big TV spot?” Tommy was surprised to see, through the slightly opened door, Jake sneaking out of Tommy’s room.
“I figure in a return match, Jake will flatten you again in a fast, thrilling fight. Then I’m going to work on the promoter to lay out money to bring a good boy up here. If Jake flattens him, we’ll be on our way.”
“I don’t know, you’ll still have to cut the mob in,” Tommy said, hearing his own voice and wondering what the hell Jake was doing in his room.
Arno shook his head. “Don’t worry, Tommy. I have other aces up my sleeve I’ve never told you. I own a big chunk of stock in one of the companies sponsoring the fights. If it comes to that, once Jake has a reputation, I can make them demand Jake fight on TV. Look, this is something I’ve planned for a long time.”
“Don’t forget me when the going is gravy.”
Arno laughed. “I have a number of projects, and you’re one of them. If the return match is a thriller, I can get the promoter to bring in pugs for you, start a sort of double build-up, so when Jake is champ you’ll be knocking at the door.”
“All I want is a few good paydays,” Tommy said. “Think I’ll go get some rest now.”
Reaching his room he carefully locked the door and looked around. Things seemed the same. He looked through the few things in the drawers, sniffed at the water carafe on the dresser, remembering what Walt had said about watching what he drank, and telling himself he was a fool. Arno had a sweet deal going and he was lucky to be in on it.
He looked through his ring bag. He’d cooled his suspicions, telling himself Jake might have dropped in to talk, only he must have known that would look bad and…
Tommy suddenly touched the top of his pint bottle. It was wet. He pulled out the bottle and sniffed at it, fear and suspicion boiling within him again. The whiskey seemed far lower in the bottle than when he’d last seen it. Had Jake been looking for a drink? Of course, he’d be pretty sure Tommy had a bottle with him. But what really made Tommy jittery was—Jake wasn’t a bottle man. Why did he need a drink for a tank job? What was he so nervous about yesterday and today?
Sitting on the bed, Tommy looked at the bottle, handled it as it were a time bomb. The fact Jake had not only taken a drink, but a good stiff hooker, alarmed Tommy more than any of Alvin’s or Walt’s warnings. In fact he felt in sharp need of a belt himself, but instead he poured the rest of the bottle out of the window. The small hotel room seemed to fill with the aroma of whiskey and Tommy suddenly laughed, said aloud, “My God, I must be going nuts, wasting good booze. Jake comes in for a belt and I get all upset. What the hell, there’s some pugs who get all nervous before any fight. So he isn’t a drinker, but maybe he needs a shot before a bout, any bout? He’s known here, he can’t walk into a bar and ask for one. He comes to my room, I’m out, but Jake needs the shot badly and helps himself. So what am I getting excited about?”
Tommy turned on the radio, fell on the bed, and for a time was almost calm enough to sleep. But every once in a while little barbs would start digging into his mind. Like he came awake with the troubled thought, If Arno owns stock in one of the companies sponsoring the fights, with a guy as good as Jake, what does he need me for?
Tommy answered that with, But Arno is a rich fight buff, he wants to push two fighters. Guess it will be a feather in his cap to make a big-timer out of me—I’m Irish, I’m the last of the one hundred-bout boys.
The afternoon passed with Tommy either sleeping or silently arguing with himself. In his confusion only one thought was clear: One way or the other I have to know.
At eight o’clock as &e was packing his ring things, he suddenly knew of a simple way to learn the truth. He’d ask Jake, indirectly.
Arno rapped on his door and the three of them left for the fight club—Jake walking on the other side of the street, Arno a hundred feet or so behind Tommy. Irish was in a relaxed, almost jolly mood. He would learn for certain, very soon, that things were on the up and up. He was about to make some dough and start a plan which would bring him real folding green. Tommy could picture May’s face tomorrow as he handed over the money for the first month’s rent, casually told her, “Hold on to this until we get the apartment.”
Arno took a ringside seat in the club, he had neither a license or a reason to be in either comer, while Jake and Tommy went to separate dressing rooms. Tommy undressed and dressed carefully, admiring the clean dressing room as he looked for a place to hide his ring. He finally hid it inside a balled-up sock. He went to the bathroom like a robot, keeping his old green robe on and careful to stay out of a draft when the door opened. He was sharing the room with kids waiting to go on who had friends and seconds with them. Cork was pleased with their whispered, “He’s a real pro… hundreds of fights. Look at his face.”
A kid helped him bandage his hands and when he was sure everything was in order, Tommy stretched out on the one rubbing table and hummed a pop tune, certain he was setting a fine example for these nervous kids.
He was due to go on at about nine forty-five and a few minutes after the second prelim bout pug returned, bloody but grinning, Tommy let the kid have the rubbing table while he shadow-boxed and warmed up. A slim Mexican with an ear thicker than Tommy’s and wearing a worn red turtleneck sweater came in and said he was Tommy’s second. Cork wasn’t sure if the fellow was eighteen or forty-eight years old.
When his time came, Tommy had the thin fighting gloves on and marched out of the room, throwing punches in the air, dancing on his toes… followed by the Mexican carrying the pail, a water bottle, and his mouthpiece. Almost grinning to himself, Tommy thought, Now I’ll ask Jake, get this uncertainty over. Crazy, we couldn’t be seen talking together on the street, but I can ask him right in the ring, talk to him before all the fans. Not a bad house—must be close to eighteen hundred, two thousand folks. Nice little club.
Climbing into the ring he glanced across at Jake’s sullen face, at the strong legs as Jake jogged up and down, shook out the muscles of his thick shoulders. Tommy told himself, “I bet he dried out for the weigh-in, he must have taken on fifteen pounds since noon. Sure looks heavy. Man, if Jake and I can only play it like Benny Leonard and… think it was Johnny Dundee. Read where they fought each other about a dozen times.”
The Mexican vaselined Tommy’s face as Cork sat on his stool and waited for the introductions. He saw Arno eating something out of a bag, admired the blank expression on the fat face. Tommy got a mild, polite hand when he was announced while Jake received a lot of applause. The Mexican, gently rubbing the back of Tommy’s neck nodded across the ring at Jake, said, “I see that boy over there some place. Maybe in California. Couple years ago.”
“Was it in Utah?” Tommy asked quickly.
“No, I never there. He had different colored hair then, and maybe he was a lightweight. Going like ball of fire in amateurs.”
“Real good boxer?” Tommy asked, slipping off his robe as the ref called them together in the center of the ring for their instructions.
“Yes, but if this the same boy, was something, something wrong with him,” the Mexican second said. “Let me think.”
The referee was a squat man in a blue work shirt and from the way he gave his instructions, an experienced ref. Jake stared at the canvas, flexing his heavy muscles as his second kept patting him on the back. When the ref asked, “Any questions? Okay, now touch gloves and come out fighting….” Tommy suddenly said to Jake, “My second claims he saw you fight out in Utah, under the name of Harold Barry.”
This was the simple plan Tommy had hit upon during the afternoon. He expected no reaction from Jake, but the moment the words were out Tommy knew Alvin had been right—dead right! For Jake’s face went white and he turned, glanced frantically at Arno. The referee snapped, “We ain’t serving coffee and cake here. Cut the talk and get to your comers. Give me a clean fast fight.”
In his comer, as the Mexican pushed the rubber mouthpiece between his lips, Tommy stood like a lump; sweat pouring out all over him. The Mexican said, “This fellow is strong like a bull, but I tell you to go out and rush him. If he is the same boy I think, he’s got….”
The bell for the first round sounded—a sharp and dreary call to Judgment Day. Licking the mouthpiece firmly in his mouth with his tongue, from force of habit, Tommy danced out of his comer.
Jabbing Jake twice and weaving away from a vicious left hook, Tommy wondered what he was going to do. It was a very fast and brief thought because he was too busy watching Jake’s gloves and feet to do much thinking.
He blocked a right, picking the punch off in mid-air, then snapped Jake’s head back with a left hook on the temple. He missed another left, ducked under Jake’s right, and grabbed Jake as he came up, pulling him into a clinch. Tommy stared into Jake’s set face, the hard eyes—still hoping, somehow, to see something which would prove his suspicions were all wrong—but Jake’s eyes were like looking into the business ends of twin guns.
Tommy didn’t try any infighting, merely held Jake’s arms. As Jake twisted and wrestled, using his greater strength, Tommy stared into Jake’s set face, the hard eyes—still Hail Mary, Sweet Virgin… If I’d only listened to Walt and May. How could I ever have imagined Arno would really be interested in an old washed-up pug like me? I must have been crazy….
Muttering, “Cork, you’re holding,” the referee parted them. Tommy’s left jab darted out, keeping Jake from getting set. Tommy bounced a hard left off Jake’s iron stomach, missed a right to the chin. Tommy felt as sick as if he’d stopped a gut punch. His hook to the stomach had absolutely no effect on Jake. Jake started circling to Tommy’s left, feinted with his right, then his left, and sent a looping overhand right over. Tommy blocked this with his left forearm and sudden fire and pain raced up the arm and into his heart, nearly driving him crazy as he realized the punch had broken his left arm.
He danced away, back-pedaled across the ring. Jake came after him, the killing right cocked. Tommy knew he was finished, he surely had no chance against Jake with only one hand. Perhaps he also knew he could drop to the canvas and be counted out; he could duck through the ring ropes; he could scream at the referee to stop it—tell him his arm was broken; he could even yell at the ringside cop that he was being murdered. Yet he really couldn’t do any of these because he was a stupid-proud pug named “Irish” Tommy Cork.
Tommy started moving toward Jake’s left, to get out of range of lethal right, but with cat speed, Jake also shifted. Tommy tried to hold up his left but the pain made him tear and he let the hand dangle helplessly at his side as he stepped back. He felt the ropes against both shoulders and knew he was trapped in a comer, left hand down—chin open for Jake’s right, almost the way they had planned the “dive.”
As Jake came in Tommy tried to mumble a prayer, call May’s name. He saw Jake’s right glove come rifling at him. In reflex action, Tommy let his own right go.
Tommy only had a fair wallop in his right; his left hook had accounted for most of the kayos in his record. This right wasn’t much of a punch but it was a short, straight blow while Jake’s right, all his body behind it, was making a slight arc through the air. Tommy’s punch landed first, smack on the side of Jake’s heavy jaw. Jake’s right hand seemed to falter in mid-air, his eyes turned so bright and glassy they looked as if they’d crack, became like two marbles. His hands went up in the air and from force of habit as Tommy absent-mindedly whipped over another right to the body, Jake crumpled to the canvas—out cold!
Tommy stared down at him, refusing to believe his eyes. Then, through his bulging mouthpiece-stuffed lips, over the roar of the crowd, Tommy tried to laugh. He knew now why Jake was such a big secret, had never fought much. Jake had everything, including a glass chin! There was plenty of china in that “strong” jaw, the odd bone formation some fighters are cursed with which causes the lightest of blows on the chin to be transmitted directly to their brain, making them black out.
The referee was waving Tommy toward a neutral comer as the timekeeper was banging out the count on the ring apron. Except for a twitch in his heavy leg muscles, Jake was a study in still life. As the ref reached ten, Tommy glanced down at Arno—the neutral comer seemed to be directly above Arno. Brewer was standing, hand deep in his pocket and it seemed to Tommy the fat face was a concrete mask of hate. He could almost picture the knife coming out of the deep pocket.
Tommy ran across the ring to the opposite corner, shoving the astonished referee aside, eyes only on Arno. The ref tried to raise Tommy’s hand, but Cork pushed him away— moved out of the comer. Arno was coming toward him, around the ringside. Tommy wanted to scream but merely chewed on his mouthpiece.
Suddenly he saw three large men racing down the aisle. They all grabbed Arno, who started to sputter explanations. One of the men was Walt Steiner. Tommy slumped against the ropes with relief, leaning on his right shoulder. The ref came over while Tommy was watching Walt and the other two men take Arno away. The referee’s face showed puzzled annoyance. He wanted to go home. He grabbed Tommy’s broken left arm and raised it high—the winner. Tommy let out a yell of pain that silenced the arena before he fainted.
In the dressing room, as a doctor was setting Tommy’s arm, Cork asked Walt, “How did you know I was fighting here?”
“That wasn’t so hard, not many clubs operating. Alvin checked on that ring death out in Utah, the Harold Barry thing, and lucked up on a local news photo. Of course it was Jake. Then when I started looking for you, I found there were only three clubs operating in the entire Eastern half of the country. Little more checking and we found Jake had fought here a few weeks ago. Arno had to establish him. I told you to let me know if they left town.”
Tommy shrugged and the doc told him to sit still. “Yeah, I guess I was playing it dumb, but I thought… Tonight I sure thought I was a goner. It was a light right and if Jake didn’t have all the crockery in his chin I wouldn’t be talking now. But my luck held out. What was Arno trying to pull after the fight, following me around the ring?”
“He was trying to reach you to give you a fast sales talk, the cover-up,” Walt told him. “We would have got here sooner but the plane connections were bad and… Look, this is Detective Chandler of the local force, and this is Frank Flatts, an investigator for the insurance company. Frank, shouldn’t…?”
A loud voice was arguing with the cop outside the dressing room door and then the promoter came busting in. “Cork! The second your arm is okay, you got yourself a main go here, and as many as you keep winning! This was the most sensational fight I’ve ever had and with all the publicity!”
“Take it easy, mister,” Walt said coldly—it had taken him time to be convinced the promoter hadn’t been in on the deal. Walt turned to Flatts. “Frank, in view of everything I’ve told you, shouldn’t there be a reward of some kind for Tommy? He saved your company a big bundle, by saving his own life.”
Flatts said, “That isn’t up to me to decide. Something probably will be worked out. Mr. Cork, my company is grateful for your courage and…”
“I’m grateful for my courage, too,” Tommy cut in. “Listen, Mr…. insurance man, can your company do me a favor, a real reward—get me a job?”
The promoter said, “Cork, I’ll give you a build-up! Who knows how far you can go with me?”
Tommy waved his right hand at the matchmaker; a shut-up motion. “I’ll tell you who knows—me! Thanks for the offer, but you’re years too late. I never want to see a glove again. Insurance man, I’ll take any kind of a job—guard, messenger, porter, elevator operator. I know I look like a… thug… but, that’s the reward I want, a steady job. How about it?”
Walt said softly, “Don’t pass up any cash, along with the job. After all, the policy is still in force and now there’s no reason to cancel it. You’re a professional boxer and unless the company gives you some other means of income, you’ll have to return to the ring and…”
“And I’ll give him all the bouts he wants,” the promoter said.
Flatts smiled at Walt. “You a lawyer along with being a dick, Steiner? You don’t have to sell me, I’ll do my best. But it isn’t up to me. I think some sort of small cash reward can be worked up. But I can safely say my company will certainly give you a job—that’s the least they can do.”
Tommy signed. “Man, wait ’til I tell May. My Irish luck is still hitting on all cylinders. Insurance man, for me a job isn’t the least. It’s the most.”