THE BACKSEAT VIRGIN PART 4: A SOUTH FLORIDA NOIR STORY - TODD W. BUSH
Peppy Garcia was exactly the kind of cop you’d expect to find in big city. He was conniving, connected and convenient.
First off, he could talk the clothes off a nun, and then convince her that whatever she was about to do was not only in her best interest, but would somehow have her Boss smiling, too.
Next, he knew everybody who was anybody in the upper and underworld of South Florida, from Vinnie Vasciano and his mob family that ran stuff in the upper crust of society, to Big Pete and his hoodlums who specialized in strip bars, escort services and the rest of it all.
And those two things led to the last thing he had going for him: Peppy was usually around whenever something went down. That wasn’t going to change when it came to breaking the biggest unsolved murder case the state had seen in well over three decades. The Backseat Virgin, as she was called, had been raped, shot in the head, her body dismembered, and left in the trunk of an abandoned Mercedes on South Beach. Some dumbass reporter got the location of the body wrong, and the nickname had held up for over two years. No one had been able to identify the victim, much less find out who was responsible.
That is until I came along, or at least until a hooker by the name of Lauren Blake had crash-landed in my office. Thanks to a little basic detective work, I’d been able to come up with the girl’s identity, or at least a name – Jessica Mulholland – to go with the DNA that the police already had. I’m a PI, but that doesn’t mean I wanted to be the center of this whole fucking mess. It simply means that I get paid to take care of other people’s unwanted baggage. The Virgin wasn’t part of my life plan.
But now I was smack in the middle of the whole thing, and surrounding me was the human equivalent of a big ass rock and a really nasty hard place. On one side was the prime detective that had worked the thing two years before, my sometimes buddy Detective Jose ‘Peppy’ Garcia, who was not only wanting to close the book on the Virgin case, but also to get the fame, glory and whatever money came with doing just that. And on the other was the main suspect, Salvatore ‘Sam’ Calvante, the nastiest hit man the Vasciano family had ever been associated with. It was Sam’s car that the Virgin had been found in... well, his wife’s anyway and since she’d been living in the Cayman Islands at the time of the murder, it was safe to say she didn’t do the deed.
Peppy and I were on our way to do something neither of us wanted to do: question Sam Calvante. The forensics lab at the Miami PD had done a rush on the DNA I’d found in Jessica Mulholland’s old room and confirmed that it belonged to the Virgin. Now we needed to know if Sam was the killer.
“Price, you don’t do shit like this for the thrill of it, and you damn sure ain’t no moralistic bastard. So why the fuck are you here?” Four of the best curse words on record in two sentences. Peppy Garcia, my friend and curser extraordinaire.
“I’ve got my reasons, Peppy.”
“Bullshit. Who’s paying you?”
I was quiet as we drove down Old Cutler Road in the village of Pinecrest.
It was south of Miami, and if you had three or four million in the cushions of your sofa, you could have a nice place here. As I watched the gated homes and palm trees covered with overhanging Spanish moss zip by, I couldn’t help but wonder about girls like Lauren Blake and Jessica Mulholland driving down this same road two years ago. Lauren said that they had spent several nights at with Calvante, ‘entertaining’ him along with their roommate Denise. All three of them were from somewhere else other than South Florida, and none of them had made more than twenty grand in their lives. What must they have felt seeing all these mansions on either side of the street, with their private security, their fancy cars and the thousands of dollars just pissed away on hookers and drugs? They probably thought they had arrived at the big time.
Jessica Mulholland had arrived at the end of her time.
We pulled into the Calvante house and were led into an ornate study. The man himself was sitting behind a car-sized desk, pecking at a computer. I wondered what a hitman would need with a computer, but then remembered that all that killing cost money and money can be invested. Or put in a jar like I have.
He was dressed in a dark blue suit and his head was shaved bald. “Have a seat, Detective Garcia... and Mr. Price, is it?”
I nodded, but didn’t sit down.
“Mr. Lee Price, private investigator, correct?”
I didn’t nod this time; I was actually a little afraid of what might happen if I moved. Sam was known to be especially brutal with people who could hurt him, and I’d found out a week ago that he was gay. He probably didn’t want that little nugget getting passed all over the world, and the best way to do that was to off anybody who knew it.
“Mr. Price, Carmine Trubone told me that you were a good man, and that you were smart. Are you smart, Mr. Price?” His eyes were looking right into mine, looking for any hint of weakness. Or maybe defiance. Either way, I wasn’t showing those; I was scared shitless and I think he knew it. I was smart enough not to tell anything that might get my head chopped off.
Satisfied, Sam extended his hand for me to take the seat next to Peppy.
“Now, to the matter at hand. Mr. Vasciano arranged this meeting so that a disturbing piece of information can be either refuted or confirmed, so let’s just get straight to the point, shall we?”
Sam talked like an investment banker on a power lunch, and I couldn’t see him killing anybody with a vocabulary like that, much less chopping Jessica Mulholland into ten pieces. Peppy was the cop, so I let him do the talking. If I’d done it, my voice might’ve cracked like a fucking teenager.
“Please, call me Sam.”
“Ok, Sam. A witness has come forward in the murder the papers have called The Backseat Virgin. This witness has identified you as the person who killed her.”
Sam didn’t even flinch. “Well, had to be more blunt than that. To answer you equally as bluntly, no, I did not kill this girl.” Straight, to the point, and if I had to guess from my years of experience dealing with people who lied all the time, as truthful as anything I’d ever heard.
“Do you know the names—”
Before Peppy could get the question out, a side door of the study opened and a young man came in. I would have placed him in his early thirties if it weren’t for his prematurely graying hair. It made him look at least ten years older than he was.
“My apologies, gentlemen, this is my nephew, Vince.” Introductions were made all around and Vince asked what this was all about. Peppy didn’t answer but asked Vince why he was curious. Peppy was a brave one, I had to give him that.
Sam didn’t appreciate the question and his tone conveyed his irritation.
“My nephew has been living here in my home for the past five years while he was finishing up his bachelor’s at Miami and is currently working on a master’s.”
Maybe I was wrong, and he wasn’t in his thirties. Damn shame about the hair, though. Might make him a more sought-after killer though if his uncle was showing him the ropes. Vince pulled a seat up at the corner of his uncle’s desk and gave the two of us a condescending look.
“So, now that you both are here, do you know the names Jessica Mulholland, Lauren Blake, or Denise Coughlin?”
Sam was either clueless about the names or the best bluffer I’d seen this side of the poker tables at the Seminole Indian casino; Vince, however, didn’t have his uncle’s skill. His jaw tightened and his eyes widened for just a split second. I wasn’t sure if Peppy caught it, but I had and I knew immediately that Lauren had it wrong.
“No, I don’t know those women, Detective. Do you Vince?”
The young man just shook his head and smiled at us, like he was sorry he couldn’t be more help. Sam then gave us a list of people who could verify his whereabouts on the night the Virgin was killed. It was two dozen strong, and included at least three county commissioners and a state representative.
Didn’t matter to me, I already knew who the real customer that the three girls had been seeing was.
We made our goodbyes and Peppy dropped me back off at my car at the station. “Sorry it didn’t work out, Price. But, hey, at least we know who she was, right?”
I thought about telling him about Vince’s tell, but if Peppy saw it, then he probably would take care of it his way. Or maybe he had a deal with Vince Vasciano same as I did. Either way I had a phone call to make on the way home. It was answered on the first ring.
“You have an answer for me, Mr. Price?”
“Yes, sir, I do. I can tell you that Sam Calvante didn’t kill the girl.”
“That’s exactly what I thought you were going to find out, but as you know I had to be sure.”
“Yes, sir, but—”
“I appreciate your speed and discretion in this delicate matter, Mr. Price.”
“Mr. Vasciano, I—”
“The remainder of your $225,000 will be delivered to you via courier tomorrow morning. Good day.” The line went dead.
I flopped down on my sofa in the apartment over my office and planned a long week of getting drunk and fishing. It was Wednesday and by noon the next day, I’d have enough in the bank to last me the rest of the year. I could only take cases if I got bored.
The next day, I got back from a big breakfast at a local diner and was sitting down when my day dreams for a new life on easy street were blown wide open as my bedroom door splintered into the small living room. Vince Calvante and two large men walked in front of me with guns drawn.
“I know you know, Price.” Vince was smiling as he pointed the gun at my legs. I felt the bullet slam into my knee before I heard the sound of it leaving the gun. Pain caused me to scream, but one of the other men backhanded me in the jaw, knocking me to the floor.
“Easy on his face there, huh, Bruce. Pick ’em up, Tony.” Whoever he was, Tony threw me back on the sofa and Vince pointed the gun again. “Want to know what happened, Price? Just like the movies, man. I’m the big fucking bad guy who’s gonna spill everything right before I kill you.”
He nodded at the one called Bruce who threw a jab straight into my ribs. I heard a sickening crunch and knew he’d broken several.
“You know what, Price? I’m gonna let you in all the little secrets, buddy.” He knelt down in front of me and leaned into my face. I could smell Vodka and weed on his breath.
“Thought all you guineas were supposed to drink wine, Vince?”
He sneered and nodded and Bruce again. Another jab sent a wave a pain through me.
“Keep it up, tough guy. ’Cause, see, I’m not gonna make the same mistake that those movie guys do. I’m actually gonna kill you after you hear it all. And I’ll tell you the best fucking one up front. You ready for it?”
I didn’t want to hear anything else. But the throbbing in my side and in my knee prevented me from doing anything but breathing, and even that was hurting like hell. Vince smiled and leaned in closer.
“I’ll say it real slow for you, Mr. Smart Detective. I didn’t kill Jessica Mulholland... she’s still alive!”
I just looked at him, but then a figure stepped from my bedroom and stood smiling behind him. Her mousy brown hair was tied off in a ponytail and I could see that in the last two weeks she’d put back on some of the weight she’d lost. Lauren Blake was giggling at me as she put her arms around Vince’s neck and kissed him on the cheek. His smile was disgusting, and I knew what he was going to say before he even said it. The room at the apartment kept just like it was two years ago when she died, the visits to the house, dropping the name of Sam Calvante. I didn’t want anyone to say it, but she leaned down and whispered in my ear like a lover before passionate sex.
“I’m Jessica Mulholland, Price. Vince killed Lauren.”
I mustered up whatever strength I had left, to keep them talking, to last a little longer. “Why? Why kill her?”
“Remember what I told you on the phone, Price? She was the most real of us. I couldn’t get my way and that meant she couldn’t have what I wanted. And Denise...” She sighed and played hurt. “She just had to be killed, too, but don’t worry, the only way they’ll find her is if some alligator upchucks her ass in the Glades.”
I looked at Vince and he nodded like a star quarterback at the school prom.
“That’s right, Price. She wanted me.”
Lauren... Jessica... whoever she was cooed in his ear as she played with his graying hair. “She was trying to win my baby over, and I just couldn’t have that, now could I? So what better way to beat her than to be her?”
“But... why... why Sam?”
Vince stood up and nearly knocked her over. “That old fuck is history, man. He plays both sides of the fucking fence, going to the highest bidder, showing no fucking loyalty. Especially since he was banging dudes left and fucking right. We put the body in my aunt’s car and stashed it down there on South Beach. He was supposed to go down, and if that asshole cop friend of yours knows what’s good for him, he’ll do it.”
I looked at the floor and Vince smiled.
“Yeah, that’s right. I got your boy on the payroll, Price. What, you think he was pure as the wind-driven snow? That pig’s got a check coming from everybody in town, man. And you coulda had some of the action, too, but you had to go getting into my business with your little look today, didn’t you?”
He pointed the gun at me, not at my knee, but at my head. I had seen the end, but at least I knew the truth. Jessica Mulholland wasn’t the Virgin, it was Lauren Blake. And she had died horribly not because she was innocent, but because she was dirtier than the other girls, because she’d been a better lay they were.
“Any last words, Price?”
I looked up at him. “Yeah, Vince. I—”
Three quick blasts sent Bruce, Tony and Vince to the ground. A brief pause, then another shot hit Jessica flush in the chest, throwing her across the room and into the wall.
A guy wearing a black jacket and dark jeans came into the front door, a black Sig Sauer pistol in his hand. He walked over to where Bruce and Tony were laying and put two more rounds into their heads. Jessica was already dead, her body facing the wall. I could see a fist-sized hole in her back. He turned to look at me and nodded. I knew him. I’d crossed paths with him once or twice before and never wanted to again. He worked for Vasciano’s competition, Big Pete, but occasionally did jobs on the side.
Vaughn nodded at my knee and said, “You’ll live.” He walked over to wear Vince Calvante was trying in vain to stop the bleeding in his neck. Vaughn kneeled down and took his hand away from the wound, then shot him in the groin. Vince screamed, and Vaughn stood back up.
“He’ll be dead in about ten more minutes. Stay here, and the cops’ll be around just after that. With the way you are, they’ll know you didn’t do this, so...”
I looked up at him and managed to get out one word. “Who?”
He picked up all three guns from the men on the floor, then reached into his jacket pocket and threw a thick envelope next to me on the sofa. Vinnie Vasciano had sent his courier.
Vaughn gave me a cold smile then walked out the door. He didn’t look at me as he spoke. “These young fucks got no respect for the way things are and the way they need to be.”
As I sat in my apartment bleeding and rich, I knew he was right. South Florida was going to stay exactly the way it always was: bright, flashy, and dangerous.
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.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
11 hours ago