steel guitar madness



Rat McMurdo knew that two men were coming in from the East Coast to hit Vic "The Bug" Morelli. Morelli ran a book on some Eastern race tracks and had been skimming a little too much off the top. The big boys wanted to make an example of him.

McMurdo got this information from his sometimes partner in various escapades, the flamboyant pimp, Jaguar George Wolff. Jaguar George had been a disc jockey, a wrestling promoter, a rock'n'roli singer and a porno film actor and knew somebody in, or something about, most scams, rackets and tricks that went down in Los Angeles.

"When's this happening?" McMurdo asked, flicking a drop of beer from his straggling black mustache. He was a skinny, underfed looking bird with a broad forehead and pale skin. He had close set eyes and a furtive, slinking manner.

"Tuesday, prob'ly," George said, smoothing back his thick dark hair and twirling his sunglasses. He was dressed in a lightweight red jacket over a black Gold's Gym tank top. He bent closer to McMurdo, keeping his voice away from other ears. This was classified info. "And they won't be here long. They do the job and split."

It was 10:00 Saturday night and the two men were sitting in a cramped booth in a bar on Hollywood Blvd. where the drinks were cheap and the girls were a bargain, chasing shots of Jose Cuervo with Dos Equis. Pimps, hookers, hustlers, and a blaring Joan Jett on the jukebox lent a colorful ambience to the place. Two waitresses dressed in nothing much wormed their way between tables serving drinks and collecting tips. George knew everyone in the place; this was his "office" this week.

"I can see the wheels turning. Got an idea?" George asked, patting a spike-haired blonde on the rump as she wandered by.

"Always got ideas," McMurdo said, thinking. That's why George had come to him with this information.

"Well, I hope we can come up with something; I'm about flat," George said. What's this "we" shit, McMurdo thought? I do all the thinking around here; Jaguar George just slides through life on his movie star looks and slick personality.

But McMurdo wasn't one to share his thoughts, and he said: "Tell me about being flat. Had to hock the ring again." He waved a bare hand at George.
"Hunnhh," George made a sympathetic sound. He cared about McMurdo's financial situation only so far as it effected his own.

A tall, slim girl with long dark hair and large oval eyes dressed in a leather skirt slit up one side walked in from the street. Jaguar George, his bright eyes not missing a thing, crooked a finger at her and she made her way to their booth. She smelled sweetly of sex and Tabu.

"Here, baby," George said, holding a hand out, palm up, under the table. She put a wad of bills in it, looking a little tired around the eyes.

"Good girl," George said. She went back outside.

"New one?" McMurdo asked.

"There's always new ones," George cackled. "That's what I love about this business. Name's Mindy." He pantomimed sticking a needle in his arm. "She's on the stuff bad. Keeps her on her back."

"So what do you think?" Georgs asked, returning to their previous topic of conversation.

"Let me think about it. Talk to you tomorrow," McMurdo said. He got up and disappeared into the crowd, leaving George with the tab.

* * * *

When McMurdo got home to the small furnished apartment on Van Nuys Blvd. his wife, Rita, was lying naked on the sofa watching an old movie. She had a lithe, tanned body, rounded in the appropriate places, with long dancer's legs. Those legs had won her a Beautiful Legs contest back home in Indiana and brought her to Hollywood to collect her grand prize ‑ a part in a panty hose commercial. She had done some dancing since, and had gotten a small part in another commercial. Just enough work to keep her hopeful.

But Hollywood had been rough on her. She had been raped by a "producer" when she had answered an ad for "actresses who can sing and dance", and had acquired a liking for drugs. She had been busted twice for coke, and was out on bail now. "

"Hello, Angel," McMurdo said, kissing the top of her head and running a hand along one of those gorgeous legs.

"What's up?" she said, getting up and pulling on a thin robe.

"Big stuff," he said optimistically. They had been married only six months ago. McMurdo hadn't been able to show her much, and she was a girl who wanted to see a lot. They had met when she had come to audition for an aerobics video that McMurdo was producing. But the venture ran out of money and it petered out, just like most of McMurdo's deals. Rita was broke and on the verge of heading back to Ft. Wayne when McMurdo asked her to move in with him. Out of desperation, she did, and then, for the first time in his 35 years, McMurdo fell in love. She still had a lot of Indiana in her, and she was impressed enough with McMurdo's big plans and big talk to marry him.

"I hope so. I'm ready to get out of here whenever you are," she said, waving a hand at the apartment.

It wasn't exactly a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It was upstairs from a gay leather bar. The furniture had probably been there when Raymond Chandler was still negotiating oil leases and the carpet was as thin as the whore's lie that "it's too big." There was no air conditioning; humid LA smog drifted in the open windows, rustling the green plastic curtains. Cal Worthington began yammering from the tiny B&W TV. Clothes and newspapers littered the place; in the corner of the kitchen was a Hughes grocery sack overflowing with Bud cans.

"Things'll get better, Precious," McMurdo said, forcing a smile and going to the kitchen table to pour himself a shot of bourbon. It made him feel so much better that he had another.

In an hour he was passed out on the sofa. Rita returned her attention to the TV, disgusted, as her husband snored and dreamed of big scores.
McMurdo lay around the apartment all day Sunday smoking and thinking and making phone calls. By nightfall he had a plan and he went to see Jaguar George.
The next day they put the plan into action and by Wednesday they had $50,000.

This was McMurdo's plan: The soon-to-be-dead Vic Moreili, gambler and crook that he was, did have some legit business interests around town, one of which was part ownership in a radio station. McMurdo had met the principal owner of the station once at a CBS party. His name was Oscar Bassington and he was a wimpy little bald-headed guy who had inherited the station from his father. Oscar was a millionaire and had no idea what Morelli really was. On Monday McMurdo called Bassington and told him he would be killed unless he paid $50,000. Bassington acted befuddled and hung up.

"Just to show you we mean business," McMurdo said when he called back, "we'll kill your partner, Morelli." On Tuesday Morelli was killed by the hit men when his Mercedes exploded, and Bassington figured he'd better pay up. On Wednesday they had the money.

Jaguar George had a slight problem Tuesday when Mindy showed up with a broken neck, but that didn't cause any serious hitch in their plans. "Whores die every day," he said casually. He wasn't sending flowers.

Wednesday night McMurdo, Rita, and Jaguar George were drinking Jack Daniel's and celebrating in McMurdo's apartment. The $50,000 lay on the cigarette‑scarred coffee table where they could admire it. McMurdo, excited, had been doing most of the talking, unusual for him.

"What do you want to do, baby?" he asked Rita, gently squeezing her bare leg. She was dressed in white cotton jogging shorts and a thin tank top. Her unfettered breasts jiggled when she moved. "Vegas? Mexico? Hawaii?"

"I don't know. Las Vegas might be fun," she said.

"Hell, hit 'em all. I have," said George.

"Maybe we will," McMurdo said.

Mighty good bourbon, McMurdo thought, gazing at the glass of Jack Daniel's. Really had a kick. He'd been drinking the cheap stuff for so long he'd forgotten what the good stuff was like. A grey mist seemed to come over his eyes. He shook his head, trying to clear it away. His vision blurred. He stood up. He seemed to stand up for a long time, and he thought he might bump his head on the ceiling. The mist became darker.

"Rita, I love you," he said thickly, through numb lips. He tried to raise his glass in salute, but it dropped from his nerveless fingers. He swayed for a moment, and tried to put his butt back where he thought his chair was. He missed it by a foot and crumpled to the floor, out cold.

* * * *

Rat McMurdo coughed harshly; his throat felt ragged and his nose was running. He felt as if he were in a fog. His head ached and his stomach hurt from the coughing. Gradually an insistant banging began to register on his brain. Some sort of pounding. He could hear it coming through the fog at him. Now he couldn't breathe; his lungs seemed on fire. He began to panic.

Then the apartment door exploded inward in a spray of splinters and McMurdo saw big black monsters with bugged-out eyes coming for him through a bank of swirling grey-black smoke. He shut his red, burning eyes and tried to squirm away. Then hands grabbed him. He was dragged outside.

It was dawn; the sunlight hurt his eyes. He shut them tightly and they burned more. He coughed until he puked.

There was a lot of noise. People rushed back and forth. One had a hatchet. He squinted painfully at the commotion. The black monsters were firemen with gas masks.

A burr-headed queer in a studded black leather harness pulling on a jacket emerged into the morning from the back door of the bar downstairs. Others followed.

McMurdo'd ears were ringing, buzzing. Sirens - that's what he was hearing. Reality gradually began to make an impression.

The apartment was on fire! He could feel the heat, now. Where was Rita? He struggled to his knees, but collapsed in the dirt. Where was the money? That's when he saw the bubbling, blistered skin on his arms and hands. Funny, it didn't hurt, he thought. But he could smell himself burning. Then he went into shock.
And he screamed - a long ululation that echoed in his head for months.

* * * *

McMurdo was away a long time. It was after Thanksgiving before he was back on the street. He limped now, and wore long­sleeved shirts and gloves. He was scarecrow-thin. But the biggest change was in his eyes. They were hard, flat, and uncaring, looking out at the world from his skull‑like face. The fires of a smoldering hatred shone from them. When you spoke to him he answered in gruff monosyllables, curtly, and those terrible burning eyes seemed to look right through you, but never at you.

He'd wanted to let himself die when they'd brought him the wedding ring from Rita's finger. They'd found her in the gutted bedroom, where the fire had started, a crisped husk. Jaguar George had doped their drinks. The doctors had thought he was only drunk at first, but then they found the chloral hydrate in his blood. When he was up to it the cops came around to see him.

Lt. Julius Blackmond of the LAPD was an imposing figure as he stood in his dark blue trenclicoat looking down at the damaged McMurdo lying in the hospital bed. He had put on a few pounds since his basketball days at UCLA when he had been a team mate of Lew Alcindor's, but it was well distributed over his 6'8" frame. He was the force's biggest, blackest, and toughest cop, but the first one to help a friend in trouble and the last one to waste any sympathy on a criminal.

"Well, what's the story, McMurdo?" Blackmond asked.

"The guy's nuts," McMurdo mumbled. It was an effort to talk. He had second degree burns over half his body. The left side of his face would need plastic surgery.

"The guy's nuts, so he dopes you two and burns the place down? C'mon, McMurdo, what's the real story?"

"He had the hots for Rita. He got drunk and obnoxious and I tossed him out." McMurdo lied. He wasn't mentioning the $50,000.

"Vindictive bastard, wasn't he?" Blackmond said sarcastically.


"Where do you suppose he is now?" Blackmond asked.

"No idea."

"If you get and idea you'll be sure to tell me about it."


"Y'know, we've had an eye on you two pimps for some time," Blackmond said, fishing.

"That's George's act, not mine," McMurdo said, grimacing with the pain of the conversation.

Blackmond returned a couple of times, but couldn't get anymore out of McMurdo. The story jived, but Blackmond remained unsatisfied; his cop instincts told him there was more to it than what McMurdo was saying.

As McMurdo's burned body slowly healed, he became more and more obsessed with thoughts of revenge. Scenarios of that horrible night kicked back and forth in his brain until the in­side of his skull felt bruised; Jaguar George slipping the dope into their drinks, setting fire to the bed with the unconscious Rita on it (what had he done to her before that?), sneaking off with the $50,000. He imagined confrontations with George. George with his fingers smashed and broken under McMurdo's heel; with his handsome face bruised and bleeding under McMurdo's fists; pleading for mercy as McMurdo gently sliced his throat with a razor-sharp knife or aimed a .45 at his head. McMurdo endured the pain because he knew some day he would catch up with Jaguar George.

So now he was back on the street, watching, sniffing around, haunting the joints looking for a line on Jaguar George. He moved like an animated cadaver, dressed in a worn raincoat and a brown felt hat pulled low to cover the scars. His voice was a croak; he ate little and smoked incessantly. A cold that he couldn't shake held on through Christmas; his gums bled and he had throbbing headaches. He carried a picture of Rita in his pocket.

He made money playing cards in smoky back rooms. An enigmatic player he was, silent and remorseless in his playing. Other street people were careful around him; he was a different McMurdo since the fire, malevolent and imbued with a deadly purpose, and they weren't sure of what he might do. He was usually back to his room before the sun came up, drinking himself to sleep. But the bourbon couldn't douse the burning, licking flames that blazed through his dreams.

* * * *

Nobody had seen Jaguar George since the fire. And nobody missed him except a bookie to whom he owed some money. McMurdo relentlessly continued the search.

A break came on a chilly night in February. He was parked on the last stool in a joint on Hollywood Blvd. working on his third double when a dark‑haired hooker came in and sat down next to him. She ran her eyes around the men in the room the way a housewife squeezes melons in the grocery store. McMurdo turned and looked at her. She was dressed in a leather jacket and black mesh nylons and had a purple streak in her hair.

A 35 trying to look 25. He'd seen her somewhere. Sheila? Sherry? Shauna? He decided on Sheila.

"Sheila?" he said in his ragged voice.

She looked at him and smiled sarcastically. He didn't look like he had $50 to spare. "Sherry," she said, turning away.

Now he remembered. He'd seen her with Jaguar George. She'd worked for him when she first hit LA. She was from Memphis, or Mobile, or somewhere.

"Seen Jaguar George lately?" he asked.

"Ahh, that creep?" she said disdainfully, tossing down a shot of José Cuervo, not bothering with salt or lemon.

"Know where I can find him?"

"Who are you?" she asked, eyeing him suspiciously through false lashes. And what's in this for me, she thought.

"Old friend," he said.

"He doesn't have any friends, Jack. And I ain't seen him."

"Nobody's seen him. Wonder what's happened to him?" McMurdo mused, sipping his drink.

"Check Vegas, that's where he always turns up when nobody can find him."

"Why Vegas?"

"He's got a brother out there. They had a dealer's school together."

"What's his name?"

She dangled her empty glass in front of his face, and he signalled the bartender and he brought her another drink.

"Jaguar Jim, ha ha." She wrapped half a set of Lee Press On Nails around her glass and used the drink.

* * * *

McMurdo had always likedLas Vegas - the night life, the women, the excitement - but he looked at the brightly lit casinos with a dismal and dreary eye now. He found George's brother running a used car lot on the edge of town. They had a short conversation, then McMurdo gave him a bony knee in the groin and they had a longer conversation. George was at the MGM.

At the MGM McMurdo found a dealer who had dealt Jaguar George a four of spades that had cost him $5,000. There had been a girl with George who had said something to the bartender about moving on to Reno.

So, rolling down State Road 95, McMurdo stared out of the Greyhound bus window past his reflection at the flat Nevada desert. His legs were hurting and he needed a drink. He would be in Reno in about an hour. His mind played with thoughts of finding George and getting the revenge that he dreamed of. He rarely thought about anything else these days. The morbid thoughts continued for the rest of the ride.

He had begun to have trouble remembering specific instances in his life since the fire unless he could connect them with some thought of revenge that he'd had at the time. The Jaguar George thoughts kept him awake with frustrated fury; the thoughts of Rita made his body go cold and numb. He took a pull at the flask in his pocket. A fat woman across the aisle looked at him with a disapproving glare. He had no feeling for her; he could slit her fat throat without a backward thought.

In Reno McMurdo mugged a salesman from Ohio. This wasn't his style, but he hadn't found George yet, and that's all that really mattered now. His brain burned as he combed the casinos and bars looking for the man who had killed his wife and stolen his money.
McMurdo didn't know Reno well, and he finally had to hire a private detective to help him out. He financed this with another mugging. Two days later he had an address and a phone number in San Francisco, a town he did know well.

* * * *

McMurdo hit town on a rainy Sunday night. Ragged and yellow-faced, he limped off the Trailways bus carrying his battered suitcase and went into the coffee shop for a cup. It would warm him a little; Jesus, he was cold. He hadn't eaten since yesterday, wasn't hungry. His eyes burned out from his caliginous face underneath the brim of his hat. The waitress, a thin, washed-out looking girl dressed in a dirty white apron, served him quickly, not looking at his face, and moved away.

McMurdo went to the pay phone and dialed the number he'd been given by the hooker with the black eye in Reno. He held his breath to stifle his harsh coughing as a man answered.

"Yeah" said a familiar voice.

A grim smile creased McMurdo's unshaven face as he hung up the phone. He leaned against the wall; the release of the pent­up tension had left him weak, and he wiped the sweat from his face with a coat sleeve. He'd found Jaguar George! It had been nearly 6 mos. since the fire.

Jaguar George dropped the phone suspiciously back onto the cradle. Who the hell had that been? Just a wrong number. He was getting paranoid. But he had been a fool to come back  here; too many people knew him. But he was broke again, had to sell the XKE in Reno to pay off the hotel, and he always came back to San Francisco when he was broke.

He sat down heavily on the lumpy yellow sofa, rubbing his eyes wearily. The little vial lay like a burning coal in his shirt pocket. He didn't have much left, but he needed a bump. So he got the vial out and snorted two tiny lines of the cocaine. The familiar feeling rushed to his brain and spread throughout his body. Much better.

A girl dressed in an open flannel shirt appeared at the bedroom door. Her hair was in disarray; her eyes puffy with sleep. She fumbled a cigarette from the shirt pocket and padded barefoot into the living room, found a match, and sat down on the sofa next to George, curling her legs up under herself. She left the shirt hanging open, exposing her perfect breasts, each capped by a white triangle that showed the kind of swimsuit she wore. She had two other white triangles, one larger than the other, farther down.

"Gimme a line," she said in a husky voice.

"Later," said George.

"Come on, baby," she said, nuzzling his neck and running her hand along the inside of his thigh.

George was getting tired of this bitch; all she ever wanted to do was get high and spend money. He was beginning to wish she would turn up missing. He put a hand on her face and shoved her back supine on the sofa with less force than it would have taken to push a brick through the thin plaster wall.

Her legs flailed awkwardly and her cigarette fell to the thin shag carpeting.

"Damnit, George," she wailed, gathering her shirt around her and getting to her feet.

"I said later. I've got to go out for awhile."

She correctly considered herself uninvited. "And what am I supposed to do?"

"Read a good book," he said nastily, tossing a paperback copy of "Crime and Punishment", left by a former tenant, at her.

She bit her lower lip to keep from saying what was on the end of her tougue. He had that crazy look in his eye again, and her fingers strayed to the faint pink stripes on her buttocks. She felt a tightness in her chest and her face grew warm. She knew she'd better shut up unless she wanted another whipping. And she was a long way from home with no money. So she flounced into the bedroom and washed down another Placidyl with a mouthful of Canadian Mist. Soon she was asleep again.

Jaguar George pulled out some clothes from the closet. He still had something left of the fancy wardrobe he'd put together when he was in the bucks, and he wanted to look good tonight when he went downtown to see Valerie Carico. They had starred together in a short series of porno flicks nearly ten years ago, and now she owned the company. She had been happy to hear from George when he'd called her last week, said she was looking for someone to look after the distribution of her films on the West Coast. Sounded good to George; he could handle that.

* * * *

McMurdo found the apartment building where Jaguar George was holed up and walked up four smelly flights of stairs to his top floor apartment. The halls were dimly lit, there was no one else around. He tapped on 4–D.

George was pouring himself a shot of whiskey at the kitchen table before he left to see Valerie.

"Whoozere?" he grumbled.

McMurdo tapped louder.

"Who is it?" George said.

"Message from Masters," McMurdo said, keeping the excitement out of his voice, making his voice higher, more nasal. Masters was a local bookie whom he figured George would know.

What the hell would Masters want, George wondered, tossing down the drink and opening the door a crack.

McMurdo crashed into the room like a bull, his strength belying his emaciated appearance, snapping the safety chain and knocking Jaguar George against the sofa. George gaped in terror at the enraged corpse‑like figure. At first he didn't recognize him, so much had he changed. Then the ghostly figure spoke, in its grating voice, and Jaguar George knew he was a dead man.

"This message is from Rita," McMurdo said in a voice dripping ice. He smacked George with the lead-weighted sap across his shoulders as he turned to avoid the blow. As George tried to scramble away he hit him again on the back of his head and he went down. Blood stained the back of George's silk shirt as he lay on the floor moaning, half unconscious. McMurdo glared down at him, his breath coming in ragged gasps, hardly able to keep himself from finishing off George with the sap. But he didn't want to beat him to death; he had something else in mind. He saw the whiskey on the kitchen table, took a drink with a shaking hand, then lit a cigarette. He waited for Jaguar George to come to. When he did, he kicked him in the face, smashing his nose up against his cheek. Blood spurted, and George's beautiful face was ruined. McMurdo's jaw began to ache, and he relaxed his tightly clenched teeth and took a deep breath.

"Where's the money?" McMurdo said in a voice as black as death.

"G-g-gone," George whimpered.

McMurdo had figured as much. He didn't really care. He took the picture of Rita from his pocket and held it in front of George's face.

"Look at her," he said.

"She... " George began, but was silenced by another kick.

McMurdo took off his hat, revealing the hideous scars that ran down the side of his face. His hair was mostly gone on the left side of his scalp; the scalp was covered with scar tissue. "Look what you did to me," McMurdo hissed.

"But Rita..."

"Shut up," McMurdo said, giving him another kick.

He took off his raincoat and his shirt. His body was horribly mutilated, the scars red and angry. He dropped his pants; one withered leg was almost useless. He stood nearly naked before Jaguar George; George's eyes couldn't tear themselves away from the burned, scarred body. He whimpered and sniffled in terror.
"You'll pay, you'll pay," McMurdo said, grabbing George by the hair and screaming through his teeth.

Then McMurdo took a half‑pint bottle of Jack Daniel's from the pocket of his coat. Only it didn't have any bourbon in it. He had drunk the bourbon long ago. Now it contained gasoline. He had been carrying it, along with the sap, with him for three months, and now he was ready to use it. His red eyes locked in on George's eyes, wide open with fear, as he poured the gasoline over George's body. George squirmed and tried to scoot away. A grim chuckle came from McMurdo. He lit a match and tossed it at George. Jaguar George screamed horribly as he exploded into a ball of flame. He rolled convulsively around on the floor, tried to get up, couldn't, and finally just lay there twitching.

McMurdo smiled as he watched Jaguar George die. Then he got dressed, put the picture of Rita back in his pocket, and left. No one had seen him come, and no one saw him go.

By the time he got across the street flames were licking at the curtains of George's apartment. McMurdo stood in the gathering crowd and watched as the whole top floor was eventually engulfed in flames. When the fire department arrived they were able to stop the fire from spreading to any of the lower floors. He watched them carry George's body out on a stretcher, then drifted away into the night. He didn't see them carry the girl out. She was still alive, but badly burned, and the medics didn't think much of her chances.

* * * *

McMurdo wandered aimlessly around San Francisco, drinking when he could get it, and sleeping under newspapers in alleys and doorways. He didn't look up any of his friends; he didn't want to see any one, talk to any one. He was happy with his own thoughts. Over and over in his mind he relived the death of Jaguar George. The squealing, the screaming, the futile efforts to escape the fiery fate that McMurdo, like an avenging angel, had come to mete out to him. He could still smell the aroma of George's roasting flesh, could still see his body blackening and shriveling under the orange flames.

McMurdo sat wrapped in his tattered raincoat in a shadowy doorway of an abandoned warehouse sucking on a cold cigarette butt he'd picked out of a crack in the broken sidewalk. He rubbed his bony hands together gleefully and gibbered to himself.

* * * *

A week later McMurdo was in the hospital. The cops had found him passed out on a sidewalk. The doctors wondered why he was still alive; he had pneumonia, emphysema, cirrhosis, and was also suffering from exposure and malnutrition. He was too disoriented and out of touch with reality to communicate with anyone, and his identity remained a mystery.

He spent most of the time in bed, but he was able to walk around a little. One good day he was walking down the hall, muttering to himself, when he met a girl in a wheel chair. He had heard the nurses talking about her; she was the girl who had been in Jaguar George's apartment when he had torched it. Hell, he thought George had been alone. No matter. Just some whore. The firemen had gotten her out in time to save her life, but her legs had been very badly burned and had been amputated above the knees. He stared at her in shock. She stared back. It was Rita, his wife.

* * * *

McMurdo even stopped talking to himself after this. He never made another sound. He refused to eat, or move, or go to the bathroom. Three days later he was dead.

Rita identified McMurdo, and when the cops came to talk to her Lt. Julius Blackmond from Los Angeles was with them. The LAPD had been keeping tabs on McMurdo since he left the hospital in LA, but had lost him in Reno.

Blackmond gazed down from his great height at the pathetic little white girl with no legs. She looked haggard and old sitting in the wheelchair dressed in the drab hospital robe. There were dark circles around her eyes and her stringy hair hung limply to her narrow shoulders. She didn't bother with makeup anymore; she didn't care. Christ, he had a daughter her age.

"I didn't know, I didn't know," she moaned, hugging herself and rocking back and forth in the wheelchair.

"Didn't know what?" Blackmond asked.

"About the fire, about Rat being burned."

"You were there..." Blackmond said softly, accusungly.

"No... After George doped Rat's drink and he passed out George sent me over to his place to pick up some suitcases and stuff."

"George was still in your apartment when you left?"

"Yeah. He said he had to go see someone and he would meet me in an hour at the Hamburger Hamlet."

Then she told Blackmond about the $50,000 and how they got it.

"You left him with all the money? Very trusting," Blackmond said dryly.

"I had my half," she said defensively. Blackmond's eyes widened in surprise.

"And you never knew about the fire?"

"Not 'til you told me. I don't read newspapers or anything,"

"Who was the girl in the apartment in the bed?" Blackmond asked.

"I don't know," she said bleakly, toying with a cigarette.

Blackmond believed her; he knew who the girl was, anyway. Mindy Kramer, a hooker who had worked for Jaguar George. A pretty fair way to dispose of a body; George had undoubtedly killed her, for some pimp's reason or other.

"I was sick of that crummy apartment and sick of Rat's big plans that never came to anything," Rita said, tears welling up in her eyes. "I mean, I liked Rat and everything and he'd been real good to me, and I didn't want to hurt him but I wasn't in love with him." She looked up at Blackmond in despair, pleadingly. "I was just looking for a way out, a better life. I didn't want to go back home; they'd all laugh at me. I guess I fell in love with George. He was so good looking and fun... I thought he loved me. He said he did. I didn't know how he was... I can't believe he set the apartment on fire. We were just gonna take the money and go." She sniffled and blew her nose.

The nurse made a face at Blackmond and jerked her head toward the door.

"He said Rat would never find us. But he did. When I woke up in here I knew he did." More tears came. "Look what he did to me," she sobbed "He got his revenge."