Story by Bruce Harris
Illustration by Cesar Valtierra
Mel Lewis walked into an office reeking of cigar smoke. The man sitting behind the desk was the source. He had a large black cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth. He wasn’t what Lewis expected. The man had a long face, longer shoulder length hair, and a large crooked nose. He reminded Lewis of Tiny Tim. He was, like the woman and Lewis himself, out of place in the South Street Gym and the new business of boxing. The cigar’s tip pointed upward toward the ceiling as the man looked up at Lewis.
“Can I help you with something?” His voice was deep and gravely, unlike Tiny Tim.
Lewis watched the woman walk back toward her pupil at the speed bag. “I’m looking for Georgie Ruth. I understand he works out here?”
The man chewed at the flat end of the dead cigar before sucking in and blowing phantom smoke. “And you are?”
Lewis hesitated for just a moment, the man asked, “You a cop?”
“No. I’m a…” again a brief delay, then, “I’m a newspaper reporter, name’s Lewis. Sports. I’m doing a story and I’d like to speak to Ruth.”
Tiny Tim sat back in a large black leather chair. Lewis noticed one of the arms of the chair was missing. Lewis had the image of a money-sucking Vegas one-armed bandit. “Cut the shit. What the hell do you want?”
Lewis took a step back. “Sorry. I was a reporter, once. I’m looking for Ruth. It’s something sort of personal I’m working on and I just want to ask him a couple of questions.”
The man behind the desk quickly sized up his new company, smiled. He pulled the beaten stogie from his mouth and made a point to stare it. “People don’t shit cigars, pal.” He looked at Lewis with raised eyebrows. Lewis got the hint. He approached the desk, dropped two twenties. The man opened the desk’s lap drawer with his left hand and with his right swept the bills into it. The drawer slammed shut. “That’s a little better, but Ruth don’t need no story. Toast.”
It wasn’t a question and it confused Lewis. “Excuse me? I’m not hungry.”
The man smiled again. “Toast.”
“What are you saying?”
“Georgie Ruth. He’s toast. Ya know, done. Burnt. Dead.” He pulled the cigar from his mouth, knocked cold ashes against the side of his desk, and examined the blackened stub’s end.
It took a second or two for the news to seek in. Lewis had a stupid look about him. He felt it. “Like in a fire? You’re sure? I just gave you $40 bucks…”
“Look, Lewis, I’m not happy about it. The news about Ruth, that is. I’m quite pleased with the money. You think good fighters are easy to find? Everyone thinks they’re the next world champion. They all stink. Ruth was good. Well, it depends on whom you ask. He was what you’d call a rising star. He just burnt out, that’s all. Hey, that’s pretty funny in a sick sort of way, no?” Lewis failed to respond so the man continued. “Ruth had his
demons. Hell, who don’t? Got mine, bet you got a few, eh Lewis?” The question was rhetorical. “Ruth could fight, at least under certain controlled conditions and that’s all I cared about. Sorry I can’t help. Make sure you shut the door when you leave.” The man pulled a heavy ledger from his desk, grunted, and dropped it on his desk and opened it. He looked up. “I’m busy. Anything else?”
Lewis took another look around the office. “Nope. Thanks.” What did it mean that Georgie Ruth died in a fire? Coincidence? And, to what did the man refer when he said Ruth could fight under certain conditions? Lewis smelled more than an odiferous cigar. He walked through the stinking gymnasium, around floor mats, dented metal pails filled with all sorts of disgusting looking and smelling liquids toward the same staircase to which he had entered. His shirt was now completely soaked. He reached into a pocket for a handkerchief but found nothing. He was one step away from the steps when the female trainer spoke.
“Georgie Ruth wasn’t his name.”
Lewis stopped. “No?”
“He was a scumbag. Good fighter, but a scumbag. Never got a chance around here. Besides, anyone who hits their old lady is scum in my book.” She turned back toward another man. He was built more like a basketball player than a boxer. He wore green shorts adorned with a white shamrock. He was doing pushups. “Twenty more, Kevin. Go!”
“Want to talk about it?” questioned Lewis.
“Nope. You’re not a cop, are ya?”
“Popular question.” For the second time, Lewis answered.
“Just that if you’re looking for a man, dead or not, ya might as well know his name. Georgie Ruth wasn’t his real name it was his fighting name. Get it? George Ruth? Like Babe Ruth? You heard of him, right? That’s how he came up with the nickname Slugger Ruth.”
Lewis didn’t want to interrupt her, said nothing.
“His name is, I mean was, Bobby Tanner. That’s it. Not many people know that.” She went back to attend to Kevin, the guy who had been doing pushups. The pug was now on his back, taped hands behind his head, grunting with each sit-up rep.
Lewis took a few steps toward her. “Your friend with the cigar took me for forty bucks for information. I’m sure if I check again, there might be another forty. Interested?”
The trainer didn’t look up. “Okay, that’s enough,” she said to her pugilistic pupil. “Get up!” She tossed a jump rope at him, “get going and don’t stop until I tell you to stop.” The prizefighter obeyed as if a little boy commanded by his parent. She finally looked at Lewis. “Yes and no. Yes, I’m interested. No, not for forty. I’ve got a kid at home, leaking faucets, chairs that need…”
“Okay, okay. How much?”
The jump rope was circling so fast Mel Lewis couldn’t see it. The fighter lifted his feet off the ground by mere fractions of an inch as the rope wrapped a rhythmic thrup, thrup, thrup against the gym floor. “Not sure what you got for your forty, but I’ll give you twice the information.”
Lewis slid her the money. Her skin felt tough and dry like a desert lizard.
“I may ask for my money back. What else?”
For the first time, she smiled. It wasn’t a happy smile. Her teeth were small but even. Lewis noticed brownish-blackish stains at the base of her gums. Lewis thought she should have added dentist visit to her list of family needs. She looked around the gym before speaking. “I’m going to give you advice for the second and last time Mr. Not a Cop. Leave it alone. He’s dead, that’s all. Poor wife’s dead too. Okay? Got what you came for? I’m done with you.” She turned back to the rope skipper. “Faster! Faster!”
Mel Lewis tried keeping a poker face, but he was just dealt a pair of kings and it showed. Problem was, his opponents held the aces. He cursed himself, quickly regained composure. “I’m going, but not before you explain yourself a little more clearly. What did you mean when you said he never got a chance here? Give me something for my eighty dollars.”
The trainer looked him square in the eyes. “Primo Carnera.”
Lewis’ response was quick. “He was a champion of the world. Are you saying Ruth, or Tanner was champion?”
“No. You know, The Harder they Fall?” She thought about stopping, walking away, but for some unfathomable reason felt guilty for taking Lewis’ money. It surprised her. It was an emotion she thought went the way of subway tokens. “They were setting him up.”
“Who?” questioned Lewis.
“I don’t know. Everyone. I never saw anyone, but I heard talk. Ruth was an okay fighter, but they was building him up like he was going to be the next Rocky Marciano or Joe Frazier. Believe me, he wasn’t that good. But, every one of his opponents, well, you know, they took dives. All of his fights were dirty. They were building up his record for a big title fight or something, and then he’d get destroyed. Problem is, or was, just like in the movie; Ruth actually believed he was that good. And, he had a temper to go along with his twelve straight wins. He wouldn’t listen to anyone who tried to talk sense to him, not that there were many times of that happening. Most everyone just fed his ego and had plans to bet heavy against him in the big fight. His most effective punches came at home. That’s why I have a hard time feeling anything toward him.”
Lewis soaked it in. “Question. How did he die? What happened?”
“Sorry, I’ve said enough already. You got your money’s worth. I’ll say this and no more. There was talk that someone, I don’t know who got to Ruth and explained to him what was happening. Georgie must have trusted him. He started to blow like a cheap 42nd Street…..never mind. He threatened to quit boxing, to expose everybody and everything. He went nuts, screaming, throwing pails and ripping the exercise equipment from walls. And then just like that, fighters and fans are doing 60 seconds of silence for him prior to opening bells.
Lewis thought about pursuing it further but decided against it. Bobby Tanner. Mel Lewis knew the name but he couldn’t place it. He needed to get out into the fresh air, clear his head and think but that didn’t last too long. After walking two short blocks, Lewis realized he was hungry. Starved, in fact. He found a small coffee shop and made his way to a counter stool. None of the tables were empty. The place was noisy, the plastic-coated menu stained and torn. He ordered pancakes, bacon, and coffee. Lewis enjoyed watching the short-order cook. The chef looked up at breakfast and lunch orders, sloppily written on torn note pages dangling from a wall-mounted silver strip while deftly cracking eggs with one hand and spilling them out perfectly on a hot, greased grill. That takes talent thought Lewis. The cook wore an all-white outfit, was overweight, and sweaty. Bobby Tanner. Why had the name sounded familiar to him? Lewis watched the chef toss bacon strips on the grill and wondered if those were his. The pig crackled and sizzled alongside a mountain of home fried potatoes. Pancake mix was poured and formed four perfect circles alongside the bacon, a few sausage links, eggs, and the potato mound. Lewis’ stare was transfixed on the show behind the counter, when one of the waitresses tried to squeeze by the chef and the grill, spilling half a glass of ice water onto the hot surface. The chef jumped back as water beads danced off the grill as if on pogo sticks and a huge cloud of smoke engulfed the grease-laden air.
“Elizabeth! What’s wrong with you? You trying to burn the damn place down and kill everyone like that guy and his wife the other day?”
He had it! Lewis remembered reading a story about a Bobby Tanner and his wife who perished in a house fire. He needed to reread the piece. “Forget the pancakes. Here.” Lewis dropped a sawbuck on the counter, dashed home. He found the article:
Two Die in House Fire
Firefighters from Station House 12 made a grim discovery after responding to a 3-alarm blaze last evening at the 1600 block of Forrest Road on the city’s south side. The blaze leveled the single-family dwelling. Spokesmen for the FD said two bodies, badly burned were discovered in the home’s basement. Official identification of the remains will take some time, but it is feared that the deceased are the home’s owners, Bobby and Mary Tanner. Cause of the fire is unknown at this time, but an unnamed FD source was quoted as saying there is no reason to believe the fire is of suspicious origin.
Oddly enough, there was no mention that Bobby Tanner was also known as Georgie Ruth, the prizefighter. Lewis checked the sports news, found nothing. Stranger still, there was no follow up story. There was nothing in the newspaper. It was as if the event had not taken place. Lewis had seen this kind of thing in the past, stories with promising legs that get cut out from under them. Phantom stories, secrets, news that people carry to their graves. In many cases of which Lewis was aware, information that greased pathways into headstone-guarded wormholes.
Days earlier, J.C. Denton waited in his Porsche 911 convertible and examined his freshly polished nails. The sun’s rays could not penetrate the dark lenses of his sunglasses nor the heavily tinted windows that remained in their wind blocking up position. Police Officer Martin Horowitz, wearing khaki slacks and a dark green polo shirt, slid into the passenger seat next to Denton. His head jerked back. The Porsche’ speedometer blew past sixty in less than five seconds. Denton looked straight ahead at the road. “Well?”
Horowitz was six feet of solid muscle. An ex-college football player who majored in criminal justice, Horowitz joined the force immediately after graduating college with the intention of making detective grade. Things don’t always work out as planned. The two first met while J.C. Denton was a prosecuting attorney. Denton was coming home late one night after an 18-plus hour workday, exhausted. In his line of work, it was natural for him to make enemies along the way. Most were harmless. Usually, the worst thing they’d do was to threaten Denton over a conviction or perceived disrespectful comment he had made in court. On this night, his guard down, thinking only about getting into bed and to sleep. Denton was uncharacteristically unaware of his surroundings. Had he not been so physically and mentally drained he would have noticed Jessie Howard approaching. He’d put Howard away years ago, thanks to a brilliant display of courtroom theatrics. Denton had strung together a number of circumstantial pieces of evidence, and despite Howard’s insistence of innocence, J.C. Denton convinced a jury that Howard was guilty. Jessie Howard served a minimum 5 years for accessory to armed robbery.
Howard and a six-inch blade were now out, free on the street, the sharp end of the latter pressed against Denton’s back. Howard spoke, “Okay prick, you cost me 5 years of my life. I should shove this goddamned knife in you and let you bleed all over this goddamned sidewalk. I’d really like to see that, so tell me, why shouldn’t I do it?”
Denton felt a sharp-pointed pinch in his back. He raised his arms, still holding his briefcase in his right hand. He was too tired to fight back. “What’s this about? Who are you? Let’s talk about it. I’m sure we can come to some sort…”
“Shut the fuck up! You’re not so big now are you Mister Big Shot Attorney. How ‘bout I slice your back in half and…”
That was as far as Jessie Howard got. Turned out it was the beginning of another 5-year stretch where he didn’t have to worry about selecting a wardrobe in the morning or deciding what he was going to eat for breakfast. Martin Horowitz was heading uptown after an 8-hour shift, but a cop is never really off duty. It didn’t take him long to size up the situation. He decided there was no time, and he had no desire to identify himself, but he did, although no one heard him. Horowitz came up behind Howard, gave him a straight forearm to the side of the head and grabbed his knife-wielding hand. Howard was badly surprised. The knife hit the pavement a second before he did. Horowitz took a page out of professional wrestling, except for the fact that he wasn’t acting, and stomped repeatedly on Howard’s head. Denton, his blood pumping furiously, turned quickly around and was ready to hug Horowitz. To this day, he denies he did, but Horowitz swears he was hugged. Regardless, a friendship was born, not one to benefit civic-minded citizens, but two heads, especially when was does the thinking and the other does the doing, are better than one.
Now Horowitz was basically printing money as one of J.C. Denton’s personal cops. Nothing about their relationship was ever above board, but both benefited from each other. Denton kept his hands and reputation clean while Horowitz, whom Denton feared at times because he felt the dirty cop hadn’t a conscience, supplemented his meager civil servant’s salary. Denton continued driving, waited for a response. Horowitz had to practically scream to be heard above the whipping wind. “No problem. I told you there’d be no problem and there wasn’t. I don’t know why the hell you always worry.”
Denton gripped the wheel tightly, added pressure to the gas pedal. “Talk.”
Horowitz screamed over the wind. “The two of them were in the house. I made sure there was no one else. I’m concerned about these things.” Horowitz glanced over at Denton for a reaction, received none, and continued, “It was clean. I’ve been around enough fires to know how to start one that won’t cause anyone to question anything about it.” Horowitz looked at Denton again and again, no response. “How about you put the top up on this bitch so I can hear myself think!” Denton smiled, pressed harder on the accelerator. Horowitz continued shouting, “That’s it. There’s really nothing to tell. Hell, he couldn’t box worth a shit and if he wouldn’t listen to reason, well, he has no one to blame but himself. Shame about the missus though. Not too bad a looker. Didn’t deserve what he dished out to her and didn’t deserve to be an end that needed unloosening. Shit happens, and I’m glad it happened to that asshole. I read an interview where he was quoted as saying that no man on earth could stop him! Can you believe that crap? The poor fucker really believed he was that good. I tell you, in some sort of weird way, I actually feel bad for that stupid prick.”
The Porsche took a couple of hairpin turns at speeds that would have turned a toupee grey. Near the wharf, Denton slammed the brakes. “Out,” he told Horowitz. The cop said nothing and left.
Mel Lewis didn’t believe in coincidence. He ignored the official fire department’s report that the blaze was not suspicious, rather, an accident. He knew better. This was becoming a bit much even for Lewis. But, dollar signs did the Macarena in dilated pupils and an inner greedy greenish monstrosity wanted a piece. Something big was going on and he anointed himself knight in some sort of armor that would figure everything out, get rich, and expose some bad apples. Not that his inner core was firm or that his skin ever shined, but Mel Lewis was not one to walk away from a story. And in one corner of this tale was well-respected judge J.C. Denton and in the other an unknown contender by the name Simon Baines. The Baines onion is where Lewis decided he needed to peel back layers, fight off tears, and get to something in which he could sink his teeth. Something tasty. Something sweet.
The four-story office building reminded Mel Lewis of his first newspaper job interview. He winced. The same architect must have designed the two buildings. Lobbies, ceiling designs, and window placements were strikingly similar. The two structures also shared public entrances, distinctive in their floral patterns. Wide double doors framed by art deco adorned stones with various carved Indian headdresses. Alternating black and white tiles, like a large chessboard, comprised the floor. It fit. Lewis, who felt like a pawn prior to his first interview now felt invincible, like a king. One difference between the two buildings was an elevator. The building in which Mel Lewis stood as he waited for the oversized dumbwaiter to take him up to the third floor where the Import–Export business run by Simon Baines was located had that distinct advantage over the four-floor walkup in which his first interview had taken place. Lewis surmised the electronic walk-in transporter had been retrofitted.
On the third floor, Lewis looked to his right. Stenciled on the frosted glass portion of the wooden office door was PREMIUM PUBLICATIONS. He gave it little attention and turned left toward the offices of WORLDWIDE EXCHANGE – Importers and Exporters, Simon Baines, President. Simultaneously, he knocked and opened the door. Before the redhead seated at the front desk said anything Lewis spoke. “I’m here to see Mr. Baines.”
On alternating seconds the receptionist made snapping sounds with chewing gum. She was in her late twenties, maybe early thirties thought Lewis. Freckles made it difficult to determine age. Lewis thought about the contradiction for a moment, her proper business-like demeanor and high-necked blouse no doubt served as prophylactics against prurient minds. The gum revealed a less professional side. Lewis focused on business. “I know he’s in.,” said Lewis. He didn’t really but figured a confident approach was best.
“Is he expect…”
That was all Lewis needed to hear. He barged past her and through an unmarked door. He immediately knew he was in the right place. The finest Cuban tobacco burned from the end of a fat cigar out of the corner of an otherwise round, plump face. There was no hair, not even eyebrows. The man’s entire face shined, highlighted by a gooseneck-shaped desk lamp. Simon Baines looked up from paperwork spread across a desk blotter.
His hand reached for the cigar, the sun’s reflection off his gold pinky ring momentarily blinded Lewis. Baldy Baines looked amused. “To what do I owe this intrusion, Mr….”
Lewis relaxed his shoulders, regained composure and took in the aroma. The cigar scent was magnificent, unlike the cheap stink stick to which he was subjected to in the gymnasium office. “Lewis. Mel Lewis. Nice cigar.”
The black leather chair strained against Baines’ weight as he rose and walked toward an unrecognizable-framed certificate with four illegible signatures and a couple of raised seals hanging next to what appeared to be a closet door. He stopped, admired the cigar and placed it back in his mouth. Without a word, he motioned Lewis toward him, removed a key from his pocket and unlocked the nicely etched door. Lewis hesitated for a second, thinking that maybe Baines was about to shove him into a dark room and lock him in there, but the ex-newspaperman’s cheeks flushed and knees weakened when Baines opened the door. It was the largest walk-in humidor Lewis had ever seen. It was filled with boxes, some still sealed, many opened, neatly housed across multiple rows of teak shelves. A small stepstool stood in the corner of the humidor because neither Baines nor Lewis could possibly reach the top two rows of cigars without assistance. Baines’ smile was genuine. “I never tire of watching someone’s expression the first time they see my cigar stock. You didn’t disappoint, Mr. Lewis.” He waved a hand, “Help yourself. Take one, a handful, a box or two. About 50% are Cuban, the remainder from the Dominican Republic and other assorted countries. One of the benefits of being in the import-export business.” He emitted a little chuckle.
Lewis didn’t know what to say. He grabbed a couple of dark brown oily-looking cigars and looked toward Baines for approval. The latter nodded his head. “Excellent choice. Those are Cubans. Enjoy them. Now, what can I do for you?” As he asked the question, Baines gently guided Lewis out of the humidor and back into his office. Baines sat behind the desk and Lewis, looking for a cigar cutter and lighter, lowered himself into a nice, cushiony short-legged chair. Once he had the cigar going to his liking, he spoke. Baines stared directly into Lewis’ eyes. “What sort of items do you import and export?” Lewis returned the stare.
Again, Lewis heard laughter. Baines, “Other than cigars which we’ve already established, what sort of merchandise interests you and I’ll tell you if I import it, export it, both, or neither.”
Lewis was on the spot and he knew it. He kicked himself for meeting with Baines like this, but it was too late to do anything about it now. He thought about making something up, like ivory or jade or even rare spices, but each option sounded more ludicrous than the previous one. He blurted out, “I’m interested in promoting fights, you know, boxing matches, and was told you were the guy to see.” Lewis rapidly repeated the statement in his head, trying to analyze where it fell on a ‘ridiculous meter’ and whether or not he needed to apply immediate damage control or shut up and wait for Baines’ response. Again, without further thought or self-constraint, the words blurted out, “You know, good fighters come from all over the world…” Lewis could see Baines’ apprehension and aggression levels rise with each word, he needed to shut himself up, but couldn’t stop….”, and well, with all of your experience in the business my friend was confident that you’d be in a position to know about some young and upcoming…”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lewis. Prizefighters are not a commodity of which I import or export. I can’t help you.” With that, Baines raised his bulk, “Tell your friend,” and he emphasized the word as to indicate skepticism, “to read a couple of boxing magazines. I believe the office across the hallway publishes some that might be relevant.” With that, he opened the office door and semi-circled his right hand, palm open and facing upward in the same fashion as a high-class maitre de. “Marilyn, please show Mr. Lewis out.”
The few cigars in Lewis’ shirt pocket felt like lead weights. He forced himself off the chair and without removing his gaze from Baines, exited the office and waited for the elevator’s downward journey. He turned toward the office door marked Premium Publications, and for the first time noticed small black letters under the publisher’s name. It read, “Bet your life – the finest sports magazines in the world.”
— ♦♦♦ —
For Parts 1-3 of In the Newspaper please visit
Jerry Martini was an auteur. He wrote, produced, directed and occasionally even acted in his own films. He owned a little film company and always viewed things with an eye toward how they looked through a camera lens. There was no exception as he took breakfast in a little diner one fateful morning. He knew the men were trouble before they even entered the establishment. He read the situation for exactly what it was. Fortunately for the rest of the patrons, Jerry was a quick wit with a silver tongue.