THE BACKSEAT VIRGIN, PART 1: A SOUTH FLORIDA NOIR STORY - TODD W. BUSH
She was called ‘The Backseat Virgin’ even though she was found in the trunk of a car, and probably wasn’t a virgin. Who is anymore? The press loved the label, and ran with it as they so often do in these cases. They’d been writing about it for well over a year and a half when it came to my door just off Flagler and 2nd. I certainly didn’t go looking for it, but find me it did.
I’m a PI, but contrary to what you might read in the pulps, we don’t solve murders. Want to find out if your wife is banging her tennis pro? I’m your guy. Need info on your husband and whether he’s getting his pubes groomed by a fruit down on South Beach? I can handle it. Lost kids stuck in the seedy side of the porn boom, lost money from a relative who flew south from Ontario and never came back, and even the occasional lost dog... those I’ll do. And don’t knock the pet thing, I once made a cool five Gs off some Palm Beach widow who couldn’t find her prize Pomeranian. The bikinis she always greeted me in at her mansion were enough of a payment, but I took the money anyway.
The Virgin was an unidentified girl who’d been found by some of the non-existent homeless in Sunny Isles north of the more famous celebrity-sighting hotspots. Our local mayors, in preparation for the big upcoming football game, decided that we went from a major homeless problem to not a single bum this side of Orlando. Amazing how that happens, huh? So these make-believe characters stumbled on an abandoned Mercedes E Class near the beach. Figuring that it might make a nice bed, they broke in, but the car smelled worse than they did. So they made an anonymous phone call and an hour later the police found her.
She was cut into between five and ten pieces depending on what paper you believed, and had been raped numerous times before being killed. Thankfully, the murderer shot her before the dismemberment, or at least that’s what the papers said. She probably wasn’t, but when and if her family was found, you didn’t want them thinking she had suffered. That always bothered me. She was raped in every hole she had for hours, but that isn’t painful at all. Just so long as she didn’t suffer.
The police tried in vain to find an ID, but she wasn’t clothed, and her purse wasn’t in the trunk or the car with her. She was a white blonde in her twenties, but there were thousands of those in the missing person files. Her prints didn’t match up, nor did her dental records. A reporter from the Palm Beach Post put a bare-bones article in his paper, mistakenly saying she was found in the car’s backseat. The ones out of Fort Lauderdale and Miami got it right, but the name stuck. She became The Backseat Virgin.
I got to know her from a girl who was definitely not a virgin. Lauren would never be cast as the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ in some lame crime drama, but she was the real thing. Mousy hair, thin as a fence post and so jacked up on crack when she nearly fell through my door, I thought I was going to have a dead body on my hands. I did, just not Lauren’s.
She told me her name and started to elaborate on her situation, words coming out slurred and slow, like she’d spent too much time watching movies and knew that’s the way she was supposed to talk.
I caught her before she split her head on the faux marble floor of my office reception area. Wouldn’t have mattered to my other clients if she did; I hadn’t had any since the $5,000 Pomeranian lady in the thong bikinis.
“Whoa there, lady... lie down and let’s get you comfortable.”
She’d dropped wadded up twenties on the white floor, along with a condom wrapper and a roll of mints. Typical fare for a street walker. After settling her on a couch I keep for clients, I looked out the door to make sure no one was with her, then closed it. An accountant from Harvard was next door in my building. No need getting the blue bloods in a tizzy because of an unconscious hooker.
An hour later, she was awake, drinking from one of my cone-shaped water cups and chattering like a chipmunk.
“Thanks for the water, I really needed it. It’s fucking hot out there today,” she said. Her accent put her hometown somewhere in the farmlands of the Plains.
“It should be; it’s August.”
“I know, right? You’d think I’d be used to it, since I’m from here and all.” Her first lie of what I assumed was many more to come.
“What exactly are you doing here?”
“Oh, I’m an actress and a model, or at least trying to be. Got a few roles in the last few weeks with a small... um... a small theater in town.”
Translation: I wanted to get into modeling, but got sucked into porn. It was common theme with the girls who wound up on the street in South Florida. “No, I meant what are you doing in my office?”
“Oh, sorry, not sure what you meant there. Sometimes my mind just gets a little frazzled. Ever had that happen to you? I get thinking about one thing, and it wants me thinking about another. Never can tell what kind of path it’s going to lead me on from one day or minute to the next—”
“Sorry, I did it again, huh? Anyway, I wanted to find someone who could help me with something I found out from my last... um...”
“John. They’re called ‘johns,’ Lauren.”
The brief flash in her eyes went the typical route. From fear, to paranoia, to shame, to a steely resolve that could only be earned in the passenger seat of a stranger’s car, not knowing what got you to that place, but knowing it was the only thing keeping you and your kids fed.
“You judging me, asshole?”
“Not at all. I just wanted to know why you’re sitting in a private investigator’s office.”
She took a couple of seconds to measure her response and my trustworthiness. Finally convinced, she let it spill. And it was a pile of shit I couldn’t even come close to cleaning up.
Lauren had indeed come down to South Florida from the Plains. Kansas, to be exact. After hearing too many Dorothy and Toto jokes, she magically became a Florida native. Rejections led to a lack of money, and the fall of the job market led to porn. She wasn’t ugly; in fact, she used to be pretty and at one time had a Midwesterner’s curvy body, so she attracted several shoots. But taking direction while her privates were exposed for the entire world to see, and being treated like an underpaid hooker wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, so she decided to try the real thing.
But a rotten agency owner took her money and sent her on her way to homelessness. I thought about correcting her, telling her that South Florida didn’t have people on the streets without a roof over their heads, that it was just an illusion, but it wasn’t the time for my brand of humor. Two months later, she was living in a shithole apartment with two other girls who were also street walkers. Denise from a small town in Georgia and Jessica from New York City. The three became each others’ bodyguards, going out to work together, and always having the other two’s cell phones on speed dial. In their business, you can’t just call the cops if some guy wants some beat down with his go down.
“Anyway, this was about a year or two ago. Jessica and Denise went on a call together. One of them had a regular who used to call once a month or so and get two of us to go play with him. I went a couple of times.” She visibly shuddered when she said it.
“You okay? Need some more water?”
That got a smile. “I’d prefer a shot.”
I obliged her with a cone-shaped pull of the Jim Bean in my fridge, then urged her to go on.
“So Jess and Dee went that night and never came back. Both of them had the problem, you know?” A discreet motion to her arm where a less-worldly soul might have seen acne was all it took. I’d been right, but got the drug wrong. Heroin; son of a bitch. “So I didn’t much worry until they’d been gone for a week.”
“What happened after a week?”
“By then, I’d found a couple other girls to split the room with, and we weren’t real close you know? I mean, we were friends, but...”
It was the life. Girls either wound up one of two places: jail or in the morgue. So making life-long BFFs wasn’t on the agenda.
“Anyway, Dee came by about a month ago. Jess had been caught the next day with some H on her. Cops said she was a dealer, but that was bullshit. Dee just bought as much as she could, right? So she wouldn’t have to go back to that part of town too often.”
A single tear slowly made its way through the caked-on makeup on her cheek. I caught myself staring at it as she talked. The room was getting smaller by the second.
“Dee said she stayed the night with the guy. On account that Jess was braver than she was... hell, she was braver than all of us.”
“Yeah, she’d try more weird shit. You know, taking it in the butt, all that?”
“Anyway, so Jess stayed with the guy and Dee looked her up when she got out. Nobody knew where she was. Nobody’s heard from her.” Her eyes were reaching out for a hope I couldn’t understand or give her.
I leaned in on my elbows, willing her to keep going.
“I mean... she was a blonde, you know? Like the Virgin?”
Oh, boy, I thought. “Look, Lauren... uh... I know why you didn’t go to the police and all, but the chances that your friend is this girl—”
“It’s her, Mr. Price. I’m telling you; it’s her!”
“Lauren, please, call me Lee. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it’s astronomical, really. The odds makers in Vegas wouldn’t even take it.”
I stood up and reached for one of my cards on my desk. She stood up, too, but all the fire had drained out of her face. I put the card in her hand and started to lead her to the door.
“I’ll look into it, and then give you a call.”
“You don’t have my number,” she said. The girl was bright, I’ll give her that.
“Right.” I ran back for another card and a pen. She wrote down a number on the back and slipped it into my shirt pocket. It was a move she’d practiced many times and she was damn good at it.
“The guy, the customer, aren’t you at least interested?”
“You know him by name?”
“Not by name, but by address. Just off Pines Bay, in Pinecrest.” Oh crap. Pinecrest meant one thing: money and a shitload of it. “The guy had a New York accent and every time I was there, he was getting calls from some guys named Jackie, Joey, and Benny.”
“Say those names again.” I didn’t want her to, hoping she’d made a mistake, but she repeated them. Separately, they were just names. Together they meant the Vasciano family, the second most powerful crime organization in South Florida. And they also meant trouble. Only two people in the family would talk to ‘Benny Baconator,’ Joey Trubone, and the boss’s son, Jackie Vasciano. One was the man himself, Vinnie G, which wasn’t possible because he lived on Hibiscus Island, and because I figured even a transplanted Kansan street walker would recognize Vinnie.
The other was just as bad. Salvatore ‘Sam the Tourist’ Calvante was the family’s enforcer and fix-it man. Problems didn’t just go away when he got involved; they disappeared. If he was the client that Jessica and Denise had visited that night, and if Jessica was the Virgin, then he was definitely willing and able to dismember a body. But, those were big coincidences and poking around in Vasciano family business wasn’t good for longevity, especially on the word of a heroin-junkie hooker.
I was about to hustle her out the door and forget the whole thing when she got one more word in. “Check the registration on the car... the plates.”
With that, she was out the door, on her way. I couldn’t stop myself.
“What about it?”
She stopped halfway down the hall and turned, batting her eyes. “The police never gave any info about the plates, remember?”
I didn’t, but I said I did.
“They were from New York. And the car was his wife’s before she got the Benz.” A quick wink and a shake of her narrow hips and she was gone.
I’d grown up in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Midtown Manhattan. The original area run by the Vasciano family was within a good shot off a metal baseball bat from where I played as a kid. I knew some of the kids who’d grown up to work in the business, even though I’d gone on to be a cop with the Broward County Sheriffs in South Florida. I left as a 21-year old college drop-out with two and a half years of school, an associate’s degree, and a burning desire never to see New York again under my belt. And I turned all that into almost a decade of undistinguished work with the BSO. I took my knowledge, my ‘Police and Investigative Experience’ bullshit that was on my resume and ads in the phone book, and hung out my shingle.
One of the many things I maintained from my days in and around the city was a friendship with Carmine ‘Little Minnie’ Trubone. Joey Trubone was his cousin on his father’s side and the one who’d recruited him into the business side of the family. CT, as I’d always called him, didn’t mind that I’d become a cop, and had even tossed me some work in my days on the narc squad. The fact that the guys I took down because of the tips were from his boss’s competition didn’t matter to me. A collar is a collar in police work, doesn’t matter who it is.
CT was sitting on his porch smoking when I walked up. A love of cigarettes was one of the many things we’d shared as kids, and now was no different. I lit up and he offered me a beer from a cooler near his chair.
“How goes it, Ash?” Carmine Trubone was one of the few people in the world who knew my given name was Ashley Price, and was nice enough to only call me Ash in private. It was the same reason I never called him Minnie.
“It goes. I need some help.”
“Well,” he said. “You coming to me for help? What, you doing contract work for the BSO now, looking for dealers?”
“Not exactly, CT. This one’s a little...” I couldn’t find the right word.
“You caught a tiger by the fucking balls, didn’t you?” CT always had a way with words.
I nodded. “And I have no effing clue what to do with ’im now that I got ’im.”
“What’s it involve?”
“A business associate of yours.”
“Management or a worker?”
A nod was all he’d get in reply.
He blew smoke out of his nose and took a long swig off of a bottle of Brooklyn Lager. CT had his boys ship him down a couple dozen cases every few months. It was his favorite, and I had to admit, a favorite I missed from back home. He wasn’t about to ask for a name, and I wasn’t going to give him one.
“What’s it involve?”
“Oh, come on, Ash,” he said. The cigarette sailed halfway across the parking lot and hit my windshield. I thought his aim was deliberate. “You know damn well we don’t give two shits who those guys are banging, unless it’s somebody’s wife, and even then he better be just as important and she better be pretty fucking hot.”
“It’s not who he’s banging. It’s who he banged...and maybe killed.”
That got his attention and he took another pull off the beer and lit another smoke. “You know the girl?”
“My client did.”
“You sure he did it?”
“No... not even sure he’s involved, except that he definitely did the banging,” I said.
“Then, let’s go inside and finish these beers.”
Fifteen minutes later, we were in his Range Rover on Biscayne Boulevard heading downtown. CT had the windows down, a cigarette in his hand and Bon Jovi blasting out of his speakers. And it wasn’t modern-day near-country Bon Jovi, either. It was mid-80’s big-hair Bon Jovi. From the ‘New Jersey’ album. CT was a walking, talking cry for the reinstatement of profiling.
“You gonna tell me who it is, Ash?” I could barely hear him over the guitar solo on ‘Bad Medicine,’ so I turned it down slightly. It was still too loud for anybody to hear us, but at least we could hear each other.
“You sure you want to know?”
“Yeah, might as well tell me.”
I hesitated and lit a smoke of my own. It gave me time to decide whether I wanted to put myself that much closer to death in a particularly nasty manner. He beat me to the punch.
“It’s Sam, isn’t it?”
“Shit.” He was right. Shit.
He drove two blocks on Biscayne in the middle of typical downtown Miami traffic in total silence, which meant I had nearly ten minutes to think of a way to go back in time and take the name back.
“Lee... this is bad, man.” I got worried. Way more than I’d been a minute before. CT didn’t call me Lee unless he was really serious or scared.
“How bad is it?”
“Like we both might get it bad.”
“Even with your last name?” I said.
“That don’t mean shit when it comes to Sam, man. The guy’s nuts. What’d you find out?”
I had already decided not to give away Lauren’s name or anything about her. I just told him the basics, without any names.
“Holy shit,” he said after I’d finished. “The Backseat Virgin? Fuck, man, we made jokes after it happened at the club that it sounded like something Sam would do. I never actually thought... Fuck!” He beat the heel of his hand on the steering wheel.
“What do I do, CT?”
“The only thing we can do, Ash.” He’d used ‘we’. I was starting to get back the trust I’d once had for CT when we were friends, chasing girls and causing havoc in our teens.
I threw my cigarette out the window onto Biscayne as we took a left on 18th. “What?”
“We’re gonna go see the man.” He pulled into a parking spot in front of the Doubletree Grand Hilton, where Tony Chan’s Water Club dominated the whole bottom floor. A dozen black Lincoln town cars were parked and waiting for their rich and powerful owners eating and drinking inside. But the only pearl white one with a driver built like an NFL linebacker leaning on the hood cleaning his Glock .40 belonged to the man. I said what I was thinking aloud, even though I didn’t need to. It just made the whole situation more real.
“We’re going to see Vinnie Vasciano.”
Vinnie Vasciano looked out the back window of Tony Chan’s Water Club and seemed to be disappointed with the tremendous view. It was like he wanted something more than the clear blue sky, the gentle waves lapping at the white sand of Sunny Isles beach. He pulled at his bushy eyebrows. I’d heard it was a habit that meant he was in deep thought. I hoped it wasn’t over how best to dispose of my body.
“You sure about this information, Mr. Price?” It was the first thing he’d said since I started retelling the story I’d learned from Lauren earlier than day in my office. The only sound he made, in between bites of sushi and sips of very expensive whiskey, was the occasional grunt or soft cough. I didn’t know if he was listening or not, but I didn’t dare ask. The man feared no one, not even his biggest competition in South Florida who had double the men Vinnie had.
“I have no reason to doubt my client, Mr. Vasciano.” That was a lie, and I hoped Vinnie didn’t pick up on it. I had every reason to lie. My client was a heroin junkie whose only real source of income was playing strangers’ fiddles in their cars behind dumpsters. A real pillar of truth and honesty that one was.
He wiped his mouth with the napkin, downed the last of the whiskey and nodded his head. His two bodyguards stood as well. Apparently my audience was over.
“Mr. Price, I know of your reputation in South Florida. You came down here about the same time as my family, didn’t you?”
“Yes, sir.” For some reason, I felt like I was talking to a superior in the police department.
“You have an excellent record. Some of your cases have come to our attention. Nothing you’d notice, mind you, but rest assured that all matters were handled in a manner in which we were satisfied.”
“I’m happy I could be of service, sir.” I hoped my sarcasm didn’t piss him off. It normally got my ass in more trouble than I could handle.
“If this client of yours is correct, and Mr. Calvante is the one who is responsible for this horrible crime, then it is a matter that we’ll handle internally.”
It was like I was talking to a bureaucrat with a Fortune 500 company, not a man who’d ordered the death of dozens of people in the last ten years. My fear of Vincent Vasciano didn’t go away; on the contrary, it grew.
“Mr. Vasciano, I’m hoping that this information isn’t true. I wouldn’t want anything I did—”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Price. We won’t blame you personally. ‘Shoot the messenger’ isn’t an Italian phrase.” His laugh was like a baby’s rattle and bits of food splattered across the linen tablecloth.
I got up to leave, thankful I was leaving with everything attached and still in the right place. CT walked me out to his car and drove us back to his apartment. We didn’t talk until he’d punched the code to get through the gate at his complex.
“You know, Ash, something’s bothering me about that story of yours.”
I was taking a drag off my cigarette and nearly choked on the smoke. “Well, thank Christ you didn’t say anything back there when we were talking to Vinnie. I might not have walked out there with my balls.”
“Oh, it’s not anything too big. I still think Sam could be the guy. But, well, it’s two things really.”
“The first one is?”
“There’s no way in hell you’re going to listen to Vinnie and stay away from this. You may say you’re not the Marlowe-like private dick, walking the so-called mean streets and holding on to your humanity in one hand and a .38 in the other, but I know you. You’re not letting this thing go; you’ll follow it until you figure out what went down that day to that girl. Or at least until Vinnie threatens to actually cut your balls off. ”
I didn’t say anything to that. CT knew me before, and that wasn’t me now. I used to be so high and mighty, so full of the hunt of justice. But not now. Everyone wanted their local PI to be like the one they saw on TV, but I wanted to live more than I wanted justice. I had morals, but I didn’t let them get me killed.
“And the second, oh, brilliant Swami?”
“I’m sure Sam could have been into some kinky shit and all. But, hell, a threesome with two chicks ain’t that kinky anymore, pal. Everyone’s done that, you know?”
“Oh, man, Ash. I’ll set you up one day, buddy. Count on it. But that’s not what I was getting at. Sam has other... well... two chicks wouldn’t be what got him off.”
“What are you getting at, CT?”
“Sam’s gay, bro.”
To be continued...
BIO: Todd W. Bush is the writer of the South Florida Noir series. He has been published at A Twist of Noir and Powder Burn Flash. He lives in South Florida with his family.
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