The phone rings, jarring me from my afternoon nap.
”Philip Marlowe here,” I say, while reaching for the pack of gaspers under the Palm Beach Kennel Club racing form.
“Mr. Marlowe,” the whiny voice on the line says. “I hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time.”
“Any time you call, Cerabino, is a bad time,” I say. “What’s the matter? You run out of Trump columns to write?”
I cradle the phone with my chin, fire up a smoke, and put my tired dogs on the desk.
“I might need your services,” he says. “Is your calendar empty?”
Is my calendar empty? It’s as empty as a Tri-Rail train on the last run of the night from the Mangonia Park station. It’s not easy being a fictional private eye anymore.
But I’m not about to let this ink-stained jamoke know that.
“Lotsa work. Lotsa broads,” I say. “You know, the usual. Some guy stepping out, and I get to console the jilted missus, while her peepers are doing the waterworks all over my Weejuns.
“I got a looker with a nice set of pins comin’ in here in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, so make this fast, paperboy.”
So Cerabino tells me some tale of woe about voter fraud going on in Palm Beach County over the use of absentee ballots. It just so happens that three Democratic sharpies — state Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, state Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Delray Beach; and County Commissioner Mack Bernard — got elected last year with extraordinary turnout in absentee ballots.
And it just so happens that the fraud detectives found was in all three districts.
“Voters who didn’t request absentee ballots got them in the mail, and then were visited by candidates or their representatives, who helped them fill ballots out, collect them and turn them in,” he says. “There are many forged signatures on absentee ballot request forms. And a video camera shows a campaign worker dropping off bundles of absentee ballot request forms at the elections office.”
I pour myself three fingers of Old Forester and tell the newspaper guy to slow down.
“I get it, Cerabino,” I say. “So what do you need from me? If you’re just here to tell me that this ought to be duck soup for some county dick, that there ought to be perps wearing cuff links from this, you’re wasting your time.”
But Cerabino keeps talking, getting as excited as an Okeechobee Boulevard sign spinner.
“That’s just it,” Cerabino says. “We’ve got a Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office Public Corruption Unit that investigated this along with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, which put 14 detectives on the case. Fourteen detectives!”
I take a swig of the bourbon and circle the No. 5 dog in the second race.
“Yeah, and let me guess, they couldn’t even come up with a jaywalking collar,” I say.
“They took more than eight months to interview some witnesses,” Cerabino says, “and by then they were either hard to find or had vanished. And they never interviewed the politicians involved.”
I’m still looking at the racing form.
“What do you think about Bart’s Card Shark in the second?” I say. “Looks like he may go off at 6-to-1.”
“Aren’t you listening to me, Marlowe?”
“There’s nothing to hear, Cerabino,” I say. “Aronberg, the guy running the public corruption unit, is a state attorney who got his job five years ago by playing footsie with a local millionaire to run his predecessor out of office by using actors as protesters.
“That’s your pillar of election integrity.
“And he’s got aspirations for Congress now. You think Aronberg’s interested in indicting local Democrats? When it comes to sorting out potential Democrat corruption, he’s about as useful as a speed bump at Century Village.”
“As for the sheriff and the supervisor of elections, they’re both big local Democrats, too,” I say. “You could put 313 dicks on this case and all that would mean is there would be a 240-page report instead of a 24-page report that finds nobody to charge.”
There’s a long silence on the line, a silence as long as the lunch line at Chipotle.
“So then you won’t help?” finally Cerabino asks.
“I am helping,” I say. “Forget about the voter fraud, Cerabino. It’s just Chinatown.”
“Hey, wait a minute,” he says. “That’s not your movie.”